Obama's former cybersecurity adviser thinks lawmakers are right to treat TikTok as a security threat

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AP Photo/Jessica Hill

  • TikTok is drawing increased scrutiny from US lawmakers who worry the Chinese-owned app's rising popularity could constitute a national security threat.
  • Kiersten Todt, who served as a cybersecurity adviser to President Barack Obama, told Business Insider she believes those concerns are well-founded.
  • Chinese web products are gaining global reach, Todt said, both through the spread of popular apps like TikTok and through the outsourcing of China's closed, state-run version of the internet.
  • TikTok has maintained that it protects user data and has hired an independent firm to audit its practices.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Few saw TikTok's meteoric rise to prominence coming - the Chinese-owned social media has only been on the scene for a couple years, but by September it had shot to the top of the iPhone app store.

Now, competitors and lawmakers alike are beginning to scrutinize the implications of a Chinese app gaining widespread popularity in the US, with politicians on both sides of the aisle calling the app a potential threat to national security.
Kiersten Todt, a former cybersecurity advisor to President Barack Obama, said she believes those concerns are warranted. Todt doesn't attribute that risk to any of TikTok's specific practices, but rather to the near-unilateral control the Chinese government holds over local companies and its demonstrated interest in collecting peoples' data.

"One of the primary issues is that China has an entire nation at its disposal, whether it's academics, whether it's researchers, whether it's institutions," Todt told Business Insider in an interview.

"China has documented that it is collecting lots of data, and when you look at those apps, i think there are definitely legitimate security concerns," said Todt, who is managing director at the Cyber Readiness Institute.

TikTok has repeatedly insisted that it protects user data and has not handed it over to the Chinese government. TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, hired an independent firm called Special Counsel to audit the company's data protection practices. Special Counsel vice president of cybersecurity Doug Brush told Business Insider the firm didn't find anything concerning from their audit.

"We saw no evidence of data being accessed by folks in China, in fact that would actually be fairly difficult. This is a very complicated and robust ecosystem for the application," Brush said. "I dont view them as being much dissimilar to other Silicon Valley companies."According to Brush, TikTok collects user data similar to other social media apps, including names, emails, phone numbers, and metadata like user location and app activity.

But Todt notes that China could benefit from gathering such data, even if it's too soon to tell what purposes it would use it for. Possible uses include identifying and tracking dissidents, tracking government officials or researchers, and aggregating others' intellectual property.

A Senate hearing earlier this week focused on the potential security threat posed by TikTok. The company didn't send any representative, and the seat meant for TikTok remained empty during the hearing.