In the future, It could be a new mobile game or an algorithm to help students study at home. It could be the latest graphics card, or the latest exercise bike, or an app that brings families with puppies together. As fewer and fewer aspects of life are untouched by technology, it could be practically anything. At the moment it is TikTok with its billions of users worldwide.
US Senator Mark Warner wants the United States to be able to take swift action against tech companies suspected of fooling around with foreign governments and spies to effectively remove their products from shelves and app stores if the threat, they represent becomes too big to ignore. His new bill, the Restrict Act, would give that responsibility to the US Secretary of Commerce, tasking his office with reviewing and banning under certain conditions technologies that US intelligence agencies have identified as a credible threat to US national security. Although the owners and makers of the technology would have every right to challenge any finding in court if the Restrict Act becomes law, it is nevertheless a tremendous authority that must be bestowed – one with boundless implications for America’s overseas competitors.
It has not escaped Warner that such decisions could be wildly unpopular at home or have unwarranted concerns from global allies. Without sufficient transparency around the process, the government’s moves could lead to chaos. Warner says the intelligence community should be held accountable for the decisions they influence, providing not just Americans, but the world, with the information they need to understand how and why this new power is being used. He knows that he is not always free to do so.
TikTok’s links to China have more or less spooked authorities in several countries, with numerous officials in the US alone claiming to have spoken directly to whistleblowers who have offered stories of personal data misuse. Today, the UK joined several other nations, including the US, in banning the app on all government devices.
The British, along with their American, Belgian and Canadian counterparts, fear the app could offer Beijing’s intelligence agencies a way to track the movements of key officials and intercept the sensitive information they hold. Other countries already have legislation to achieve what Warner is aiming for. For example, in 2020, India’s Electronics Ministry banned TikTok outright, citing an agency designed to protect the “security and sovereignty of Indian cyberspace.”
The future of the Restrict Act is unknown, but it has garnered considerable bipartisan support in Congress and there is very little reason for America’s tech giants to get in the way. To learn more about Warner’s position on security, invasive technology and privacy concerns closer to home, WIRED spoke to the Virginia Democrat this week. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
WIRED: Tell us about the Restrict Act and its purpose.
Mark Warner: In recent years we have seen challenges from overseas technology. Initially it was Kaspersky, a Russian software company, then it was Huawei, a Chinese telecom provider, and more recently, the discussion revolved around this Chinese social media app, TikTok. We seem to have a dope approach to foreign-based technology, and I think what we need instead is a comprehensive rules-based approach that recognizes that national security is no longer just tanks and guns, it really is a matter of technology and competition . With Kaspersky, it was software that was continually updated from Moscow, and with Huawei, it was a way for the Chinese Communist Party to eavesdrop. With TikTok, it’s the massive amounts of data that could have the potential to end up in China or be an enormous propaganda tool given that hundreds of millions of Americans use it an average of 90 minutes a day. Let me be clear: Because China changed its law in 2016 to ensure that at the end of the day, the supreme ruler of any corporation is the Chinese Communist Party. It’s not the shareholders, it’s not the employees, it’s certainly not the customers. And that’s a national security risk.