The Trump administration has vowed to “take action” in a matter of days against Chinese software companies that it perceives as a risk to security, in a sign that Washington is set to broaden its offensive beyond the video-sharing app TikTok.
ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok, is racing to save the app’s US operations with a plea to the administration to allow it to sell the unit to Microsoft.
Comments from US secretary of state Mike Pompeo on Sunday suggested that additional action against a wider range of Chinese technology companies would follow.
“These Chinese software companies doing business in the United States, whether it’s TikTok or WeChat — there are countless more . . . are feeding data directly to the Chinese Communist party, their national security apparatus,” Mr Pompeo told Fox News.
“President Trump has said ‘enough’ and we’re going to fix it and so he will take action in the coming days with respect to a broad array of national security risks that are presented by software connected to the Chinese Communist party.”
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state © Kay Nietfeld/dpa
Mr Pompeo did not expand on the scope of the proposed action, however. The National Security Council declined to offer a clarification.
Speaking about TikTok specifically, Mr Pompeo said that Mr Trump was “closing in on a solution”.
The US has claimed that TikTok’s ownership by ByteDance means the data of American citizens can be used by the Chinese government. Mr Trump told reporters on Friday that he intended to ban TikTok from the US.
In a deal with Microsoft that was under discussion before Mr Trump’s intervention, 1,500 TikTok staff, intellectual property and technology would move to the US technology giant and ByteDance would retain no interest in the US TikTok business.
Tight security measures need to be part of any (TikTok) deal in order to protect consumer data and ensure no foreign access
Steven Mnuchin, US Treasury secretary, said on Sunday that TikTok could not continue to be owned by ByteDance and operate in the US. Mr Mnuchin chairs the government’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, or Cfius, which is reviewing ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly — the precursor to TikTok — on national security grounds.
“The president can either force a sale or the president can block the app . . . and I’m not going to comment on my specific discussions with the president, but everybody agrees it can’t exist as it does,” Mr Mnuchin said.
US officials have repeatedly raised concerns over the threat of Beijing using sensitive data that has been gathered by tech companies with Chinese links against American citizens. Earlier this year Kunlun, the Chinese owner of Grindr, was forced to sell the popular gay dating app to investor group San Vicente Acquisition, after an intervention by Cfius.
Last month, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro accused TikTok and Chinese app WeChat of sending user data to the Chinese Communist party, which could then be used “for blackmail and extortion” as well as “information warfare”.
Asked whether a potential sale of TikTok to a US-based company such as Microsoft would be enough to protect American users’ data, Mr Pompeo said Mr Trump would “make sure that everything we have done drives us as close to zero risk for the American people”.
Several Republicans senators on Sunday came out in favour of an acquisition, rather than a ban, of the company.
Marco Rubio, Florida’s senator, said on Twitter that, if the company and its data were bought and “secured by a trusted US company”, that would represent a “positive (and) acceptable outcome”. Senator John Cornyn described a purchase by a US company as “win-win”.
Senator Roger Wicker said such a deal would be a “win for US consumers” but added “tight security measures need to be part of any deal in order to protect consumer data and ensure no foreign access”.