Nov 12, 2020

Analysis | The Cybersecurity 202: A Biden administration could mean a reset in the U.S. war on TikTok

Tonya Riley

8-10 minutes - Source: The Washington Post

President Trump has waged war against popular video app TikTok. It's unclear what a President Biden would do. 

Today was supposed to be the deadline for TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, to sell its U.S. assets under a presidential order. 

The company is waiting on a federal judge to grant a 30-day extension on the sale as it awaits a government green light on the deal it proposed to set up a new company with investment from Oracle and Walmart. A ruling is expected as early as this morning. 

But the presidential election results could leave the company with more options.

If the Trump administration and TikTok don't work out a deal soon, that could put the ball in Biden's court once he's in office. He could reverse the order that imposed the ban and find another way to address the app's security concerns – or choose to defend the government's ban in court as the legal process continues. In the former, he'd want his own administration to continue negotiations. 

Biden has said little about what he would do to rein in the app should the company fail to reach a deal with Trump.  

While Biden has largely criticized Trump's China policy as ineffective when it comes to trade, he has expressed his own concerns with TikTok and said he would review security concerns with the app. “I think that it’s a matter of genuine concern that TikTok, a Chinese operation, has access to over 100 million young people particularly in the United States of America,” Biden said during a campaign stop in September. 

A Biden representative said the team had nothing to share at this time regarding its plans for TikTok. TikTok declined to comment on if the company had spoken with the Biden team about the ban. 

Biden's handling of TikTok could be a first step in differentiating his China policy from Trump's approach.

The Trump administration waged a years-long effort to combat the potential threats of Chinese telecom equipment, lobbying foreign allies to take a similar hard-line approach on issues such as banning Huawei from their 5G networks. European countries initially rebuffed such entreaties for an all-out ban, though more allies have reached agreement in the past year that the telecom company presents some security risks and taken some action.

In TikTok's case, the U.S. government has argued that it's a national security threat because the Chinese government could require its ByteDance to turn over the data it collects on U.S. customers. The Treasury Department demanded that TikTok's Chinese parent company divest from the app following a review. 

A Biden administration could drum up support for its path by working with allies to discuss security concerns before enacting bans or other harsh measures, experts say. 

“A multilateral approach that convenes democracies and builds understanding of shared threats would allow a more principled path forward, Lindsay Gorman, emerging technologies fellow at the German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy, said of a potential approach to TikTok. 

Gorman pointed to potential collaborations with Great Britain, Denmark and Australia, all of which have or are in the process of conducting their own data security reviews into TikTok. 

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) also predicted that Biden would seek common ground with the European Union, Japan, the United Kingdom and others on security and trade issues affecting emerging technologies. “After four years of erratic and haphazard policymaking on foreign technology threats, I welcome an effort by the Biden administration to establish a comprehensive, transparent and risk-based framework for evaluating the security and privacy risks of foreign technology products, Warner said in an email. 

Some in industry are hoping for a less impulsive and more transparent approach to security decisions.

As the Biden administration considers how to address technology supply chain security, it is important that the focus is on risk management, not just the country of origin, Victoria Espinel, President and CEO, BSA (The Software Alliance), told me in an email.

But many experts expect some continuity when it comes to broader goals. In addition to addressing security concerns with foreign apps, Biden will likely continue Trump's push against Huawei and other risky Chinese telecommunication equipment, James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Joseph Marks earlier this week.  

Whatever Biden chooses, he will have to rally bipartisan favor if Republicans keep the Senate.

Securing U.S. technology from potential Chinese spying has emerged as a priority for members of both parties. That could give Biden a broader coalition to enact policy goals such as investing in making the United States a leader in emerging technologies such as 5G and the semiconductor industry – but will put a microscope on his alternative proposal if he reverses a ban. 

“It's clear that the bipartisan consensus about the threats that China's authoritarian model poses to democracy won't go away during a new administration,” Gorman said.

The keys

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) says he will intervene if Biden doesn't get intelligence briefings by the end of the week. 

If not, he said he would get involved, but was unclear on how. There's nothing wrong with [former] vice president Biden getting the briefings to be able to prepare himself, said Lankford, who sits on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee.

Biden's lack of access to the briefings could pose a national security threat and leave the Biden administration less prepared to deal with cyberattacks, former intelligence officials say.

Lankford did not acknowledge a victory for Biden. This needs to occur so that regardless of the outcome of the election, whichever way that it goes, people can be ready for that actual task, he said. 

Republican lawyers are mounting pressure on state election officials to accept claims of voter fraud.

In Michigan, Republican lawyers lobbied the Wayne County canvassing board to consider evidence of alleged improprieties before certifying the vote. In Pennsylvania, social media ads are pressuring state Republicans to appoint Trump-friendly electors. 

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) vowed to protect Biden's 16 electoral votes in the state. “We will do everything we can possibly do in the state of Michigan to ensure that does not occur and that the slate of electors accurately reflects whoever received the most votes," Nessel said on a call with reporters.

Trump's allies in the Senate have also lambasted Georgia's Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) for defending the election's integrity, calling on him to resign. Raffensperger announced yesterday the state would conduct a hand audit of the states roughly 5 million votes.

A new report from House Democrats expresses confidence members could securely vote remotely during the pandemic. 

The House Administration Committee says technology exists that would allow Congress to safely legislate while dealing with a surge of covid-19 cases, Maggie Miller at The Hill reports.  

Such a tool could be developed to further establish the House’s flexibility and resiliency to operate during the pandemic,” the report concluded. The system would require members to use dedicated voting devices and secure networks.

The House approved rules in May allowing for remote committee hearings as well as proxy voting for members. 

But the technology, outlined by committee chair Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), still faces opposition from Republicans who questioned its security. 

Chairperson Lofgren’s letter would pave the way for an expansion of the current proxy voting scheme into a fully-remote 'vote by text' operation that is unproven, unsecure, and unconstitutional, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Rules Committee ranking member Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said in a joint statement.


  • The Cybersecurity Coalition and the Cyber Threat Alliance will host CyberNextDC on Nov. 17-18, starting at 11 a.m.
  • USTelecom and Inside Cybersecurity will host a webinar on information technology priorities in the coming year on Nov. 17 at 2 p.m.

Secure log off

Stephen Colbert takes on Republicans' mixed messages about voter fraud in Georgia in this parody ad:

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