President Donald Trump’s recent ban on Chinese social media apps TikTok and WeChat is aimed at blocking Beijing’s access to large volumes of U.S. personal data that could be used for operations to subvert the United States, a top Justice Department official said on Aug. 12.
Trump last week issued executive orders banning transactions with the Chinese owners of TikTok and WeChat apps, tech giants ByteDance and Tencent Holdings, respectively, on national security grounds. The ban is due to take effect in September.
Popular short-video app TikTok, which says it has 100 million users in the United States, has drawn intense scrutiny over data security and censorship concerns, owing to its parent company’s ties with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“We’re worried about … the Chinese government’s access to the TikTok data under their national security laws,” John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, said during a discussion hosted by the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
TikTok has said it never handed data to the CCP and never would. Microsoft is currently in talks with ByteDance to buy the app, a deal Trump said must be completed by Sept. 15.
Demers said the CCP is collecting vast amounts of American personal data, as demonstrated by several massive Chinese hacks in recent years. These include intrusions on the U.S. government’s personnel agency, credit reporting agency Equifax, and health insurer Anthem, which resulted in the theft of personal information of tens of millions of Americans.
“Huge quantities of data are needed to perfect [China’s] artificial intelligence tools algorithms,” Demers said.
This data pool is also used for intelligence operations, he said. When the Chinese regime has identified an American target, such as a top government official or someone they wish to co-opt, “they can mine those existing data sources to find out what that person’s financial … life is like, what their health life is like, what their married life is like,” Demers said.
“They can use all that to paint a very effective picture of you, and to think about where your vulnerabilities might be, or even how best to approach you,” he added.
The assistant attorney general said that WeChat, which is far less popular in the United States and primarily used by the Chinese-speaking community for purposes of communicating with people in mainland China, is used by the regime to influence and control Chinese expats in the country.
“It’s a method by the Chinese Communist Party to communicate with Chinese individuals here in the U.S.,” he said.
For instance, Demers said the regime uses WeChat to spread disinformation and propaganda about the United States to overseas Chinese, so that they are not “polluted by ideas like liberal democracy or religious freedom.”
Demers said more indictments against Chinese hackers will be made public in the coming months. Last month, the justice department announced an indictment against two Chinese hackers accused of a decade-long campaign to steal trade secrets from defense contractors and hundreds of firms around the world—most recently in an attempt to acquire COVID-19-related research.
The assistant attorney general said federal authorities ordered the Chinese consulate in Houston to close last month because the diplomatic post was at the “forefront” of attempts to steal American intellectual property and carry out covert foreign influence campaigns.
Four Chinese researchers were also arrested around that time on suspicion of being undercover Chinese military officers. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has also interviewed other suspected undercover officers in 50 cities. Demers described this enforcement action as representing “just a tenth of what was going on under the surface.”
The consulate closure and recent arrests were attempts at disrupting Chinese activity that U.S. authorities “had been tracking for quite some time,” he said.