There’s an argument gaining momentum on the right, and even among some liberals, that TikTok poses a unique threat to national security — and should be banned — because its parent company, ByteDance, is owned by a Chinese organization. Anti-TikTok advocates claim this ownership arrangement means Americans’ data could be turned over to a Chinese government that U.S. officials frequently encourage us to be skeptical of.
To be clear, there’s ample reason to distrust the Chinese government.
But there’s also ample reason to distrust the right-wingers wielding influence at Facebook and Twitter, and to believe our data is unsafe in their hands, as well. Which is why I’ve found it peculiar — and seemingly obvious — why Republicans want to move on TikTok but not other social platforms: because the conservative movement doesn’t have control over it yet.
I wrote a bit on that here.
And on Wednesday, the sentencing of a former Twitter employee for colluding with the Saudi royal family put a finer point on the very real security issues at all of the most popular social networks — not just TikTok.
Ahmad Abouammo, who helped oversee Twitter’s media partnerships in the Middle East and North Africa, was sentenced to more than three years in prison after giving Saudi government officials personal information of Twitter users who’d been critical of the regime. In August, he was convicted of acting as a foreign agent of the Saudi government, which is known for using violence to silence dissenters.
The Justice Department found that Abouammo began accepting bribes from a Saudi official as early as 2014, including a $42,000 watch and $200,000, in exchange for Twitter users’ information. The DOJ said one of the $100,000 payments was sent after he left Twitter in 2015, although he still asked the official if they wanted Twitter information anyway — suggesting he still had a way to get it.
The FBI arrested Abouammo in 2019, but the indictment showed that Twitter’s security concerns extend far beyond just him. The DOJ also charged a separate Twitter employee and a Saudi national, alleging they acted as agents of the Saudi government in the same data-trading scheme. The DOJ said both men are believed to be in Saudi Arabia.
All this illustrates why people were right to be concerned about Twitter owner Elon Musk being cozy with authoritarian governments, along with the huge Saudi investment in Twitter after Musk took ownership and the open love affair that Saudi officials seem to have with him.
Wednesday’s conviction should also give new life to claims made by Twitter whistleblower Peter Zatko, who told Congress in September that the company may have knowingly kept foreign agents on the payroll to American users’ detriment.
The former head of cybersecurity for Twitter testified FBI agents warned the platform that another country may have embedded agents in its staff: China.
Despite all this, Republicans want us to believe TikTok is unique in its national security concerns. Reality says otherwise.