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FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr supports a total ban on TikTok

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

TikTok. It's addictive. You can spend hours scrolling through those one-minute videos. Fun, but it may also pose a risk to national security and your privacy. U.S. lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, are voicing concerns about the app and the Chinese-owned parent company, ByteDance. More than a dozen states have banned TikTok from government devices. Congress appears to be about to do the same thing for federal devices. And a bipartisan bill introduced last week aims to ban it entirely in the United States. Brendan Carr is a commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission. He's been pretty vocal about his concerns, and he joins me now. Good morning.

BRENDAN CARR: So good to be with you. Thanks so much.

FADEL: So let's start with why TikTok is a national security risk.

CARR: Well, you're right that this thing is immensely popular, particularly young kids, teenagers. Two-thirds of them now...

FADEL: Right.

CARR: ...Are on TikTok. And they think it's just a fun app for sharing dance videos and other memes. But the reality is it operates as a very sophisticated surveillance technology. And for years now, it's been taking all of this data - not the videos themselves but data from your phone, including search and browsing history, keystroke patterns. It reserves the right to take biometrics, including face prints and voice prints. And for years, we're told, don't worry, none of that is stored inside China. But there was a bombshell report over the summer that got internal TikTok communications that showed no, in fact, quote, "everything is seen in China." So that's just one feature of the national security threat.

FADEL: Right. And we're seeing reports this week that an internal investigation of ByteDance found that employees had taken data of U.S. TikTok users, including two reporters. You know, I want to talk to you about why you're using your platform to sound the alarm. The FCC doesn't regulate an app like TikTok, right?

CARR: Yeah, we've got a lot of experience when it comes with entities that are tied back to the CCP and potentially nefarious data flow. So, for instance, at the FCC, we've dealt with Huawei, ZTE, China Mobile. So what I'm doing is taking my experience from those sets of work and applying it at the application level to TikTok. But in the main, the U.S. officials that would take action here would be the Treasury Department. They have an organization called CFIUS that's been engaged in a multiyear review of TikTok. And there's really broad bipartisan interest in this. In fact, Democrat senator from Virginia Mark Warner, chair of the Senate Intel Committee, has been one of the most vocal on TikTok. And he has said that TikTok is an enormous threat, in his view.

FADEL: So what do you think needs to happen?

CARR: Well, look. At this point, I just don't see a path forward where we can allow this app to continue to operate in its current form. As you noted, just yesterday morning, TikTok said that they were engaged in a renewed campaign to secure the trust of U.S. officials. Again, this is against the backdrop of trying to cut a deal with the Treasury Department to be allowed to continue to operate. But yet, by yesterday afternoon, another new bombshell report dropped that said that Tiktok's parent company, ByteDance, based in Beijing, had been using the app to surveil the location of multiple journalists across different continents that had been publishing negative stories about TikTok. And so that is just deeply concerning. At this point, trust is the most important thing, and we've now seen repeated instances where TikTok has represented that there's no security threat while they're, in fact, engaged in conduct like that. So I think at this point, that new revelation should, in my view, be the last nail in the coffin for this idea that U.S. government officials can trust TikTok and bless it to continue to operate.

FADEL: So do you want a total ban?

CARR: Yeah, I think either a total ban or some sort of action like that that's going to completely sever the corporate links back into Beijing. In addition to the national security, parents are increasingly concerned, and rightly so. As I noted, two-thirds of all teenagers are on this app. And on average, users are spending 90-plus minutes. And we saw a study out just last week that was reported in The New York Times that showed that within 30 minutes, an account set up for 13-year-old girls was starting to display self-harm content, eating disorder content. And so it's concerning from a parental perspective, as well.

FADEL: But how is that different than other apps, like Instagram, which has also shown to be harmful for a teenage girl's self-esteem?

CARR: Yeah, look. There's a baseline level of concern that I have with all apps. I think we need to raise the privacy standards and the data protection standards in this country. But what we've seen is there's something just very unique about TikTok, including the ties back into Beijing. Again, ahead of the U.S. elections, the midterms, there was a report from Forbes that the CCP's propaganda arm used TikTok without disclosing it to target content about selected U.S. politicians - Republicans and Democrats - for criticism. So there's something unique there.

FADEL: FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the program. And happy holidays.

CARR: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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