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US cyber spymaster calls TikTok China's 'Trojan horse'

It's not a smoking gun, it's 'a loaded gun' suggests NSA's Rob Joyce

TikTok is China's "Trojan horse," according to Rob Joyce, who heads the cyber security unit of America's National Security Agency. 

Joyce, speaking at the Silverado Policy Accelerator's conference on Monday, called TikTok "a strategic issue." This, as opposed to the type of tactical, day-to-day cyber threats the US spy agency wards off on the regular from nation-state actors and cyber crime gangs looking to make a buck (coin?) from business email compromise or ransomware infections.

"Why would you bring the Trojan horse inside the fortress," Joyce said. "Why would you bring that capability into the US?"

Joyce's statements come as the country's new National Cybersecurity Strategy describes China as the "broadest, most active, and most persistent threat to both government and private sector networks."

Just last week TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was grilled by the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce, with several members saying the app should be banned outright – not just from government devices – citing TikTok's links to the Chinese Communist Party.

But the TikTok threat that Joyce is referring to isn't overt spying on devices that have installed the popular social media and dance video app, nor the possibility of Chinese snoops stealing data stored on the government's servers – both concerns that have been used to ban the app on state employees' devices around the world. 

Joyce believes TikTok is more subtle, and it shows Beijing's willingness to play the long game and use information operations as an offensive cyber strategy.

Beijing could "manipulate the data" that Americans see, Joyce continued, adding that this could include presenting "divisive materials." This may unduly influence their political and social leanings. China has done this previously with a slew of anti-American content on topics including the US government's COVID-19 response, racial inequality, divisions within the country, and inflation.

Conversely, Beijing's leaders could use TikTok to promote their own agenda by removing videos "that paint them in a bad light" to the American people, Joyce said. Case in point: using spambots to obfuscate news about rioters protesting the Chinese government's coronavirus restrictions. 

Podcast host, author, and New York University Stern School of Business professor Scott Galloway echoed a similar viewpoint on a recent episode of political chat show Real Time with Bill Maher. Galloway has repeatedly called for a TikTok ban

Here's what Galloway said on the show, and you can watch him on this Twitter clip:

Imagine a brain jack inserted into the neural network of two-thirds of our youth under the age of 25 who spend more time on TikTok than any other media source combined, and then imagine how easy it would be to put your thumb on the scale of anti-American content and recognize that they would be stupid not to elegantly, insidiously, covertly raise a generation of American civic, nonprofit, military, government leaders who, day by day minute by minute, just feel a little shittier about America. If we had that tool in China, we would do the exact same thing. This is a defense threat.

According to Joyce, TikTok gives the Chinese government "a tremendous strategic capability." It's not a smoking gun, but rather "a loaded gun," he warned. 

"You can read their strategies about the threats they pose – not today, not tomorrow, but they're thinking five, 10, 20 years out," Joyce continued. "These are the types of tools that are going to give them the advantage on those time horizons. So don't provide it to them." ®

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