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TikTok’s Security Threats Go Beyond the Scope of House Legislation

In a capital where Republicans and Democrats agree on virtually nothing, it was notable when the House overwhelmingly declared on Wednesday that TikTok poses such a grave risk to national security that it must be forced to sell its U.S. operations to a non-Chinese owner.

But that glosses over the deeper TikTok security problem, which the legislation does not fully address. In the four years this battle has gone on, it has become clear that the security threat posed by TikTok has far less to do with who owns it than it does with who writes the code and algorithms that make TikTok tick.

Those algorithms, which guide how TikTok watches its users and feeds them more of what they want, are the magic sauce of an app that 170 million Americans now have on their phones. That’s half the country.

But TikTok doesn’t own those algorithms; they are developed by engineers who work for its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, which assembles the code in great secrecy in its software labs. But China has issued regulations that appear designed to require government review before any of ByteDance’s algorithms could be licensed to outsiders. Few expect those licenses to be issued — meaning that selling TikTok to an American owner without the underlying code might be like selling a Ferrari without its famed engine.

The bill would require a new, Western-owned TikTok to be cut off from any “operational relationship” with ByteDance, “including any cooperation with respect to the operation of a content recommendation algorithm.” So the new, American-based company would have to develop its own, made-in-America algorithm. Maybe that would work, or maybe it would flop. But a version of TikTok without its classic algorithm might quickly become useless to users and worthless to investors.

And right now, China has no incentive to relent.

The House vote “was a nice symbolic gesture,” James A. Lewis, who leads the cyber research program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on Wednesday. “But the Chinese get a vote, too.”

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