The discovery of a Chinese surveillance balloon flying over the United States has reignited attacks on the popular social media app TikTok, which critics allege could pose a national security threat due to its links to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The high-altitude balloon was spotted hovering over Montana on Wednesday and Thursday, and a senior administration official told Newsweek that President Joe Biden has opted not to shoot the object down “because of risk to safety and security of the people on the ground.”
The official also noted that similar activity had been reported in the U.S. in the past, including prior to Biden taking office, and said that “this balloon has limited value from an intelligence collection perspective.”
The discovery of the balloon reignited critics of TikTok who say the video-sharing app should be banned in the U.S. for its alleged ability to collect data for Chinese intelligence. In a statement posted to Twitter, Montana Governor Greg Gianforte listed both the “spy balloon” and the CCP “spying on Americans through TikTok” as reasons he was “deeply troubled by the constant stream of alarming developments for our national security.”
Other Twitter users claimed that TikTok posed a much larger threat on U.S. intelligence than the spy balloon. Conservative political commentator Tim Young tweeted: “Sooo … everyone freaking out about one Chinese spy balloon … when over 80 million people in the US have TikTok on their phones … got it.”
Some Republican lawmakers also used news of the spy balloon to reintroduce legislation in their respective states that would ban the use of TikTok on all government-issued devices, a measure that 32 states have already enacted, reported CNN.
Florida State Representative Carolina Amesty, who on Tuesday introduced a bill to ban TikTok on state-owned devices, tweeted Thursday night: “The fact that a Chinese spy balloon is hovering over our skies underscores the seriousness of the national security threat our country is facing.”
“This is precisely why I have filed a bill to ban TikTok, which is a front for the Chinese Communist Party, on Florida state devices,” Amesty added in her post.
Missouri State Senator Caleb Rowden also pushed for a bill he introduced to his state’s House floor last week, which would ban the use of social networks on state-owned devices of employers that have “headquarters in” or are “indirectly controlled by” the CCP, Islamic Republic of Iran, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or Russian Federation.
“China and the CCP are not our friends,” Rowden wrote on Twitter. “They do not share the values of liberty & economic freedom that make America great. They are a strategic competitor willing to use any means necessary to expand & broaden their power.”
Prior to news of the spy balloon Thursday night, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat, also called on Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores, citing concerns for national safety, reported CNN.
TikTok, which has nearly 136.5 million American users as of April, is not directly owned or affiliated with the CCP. But some lawmakers have speculated that the app could pose a security threat due to a National Intelligence Law passed in China in 2017, which states that any businesses are required to assist the government in “intelligence work.”
TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is based in Beijing, but the social app’s largest office is in Los Angeles, California. Despite the apparent separation between the two headquarters, however, former TikTok employees have previously told CNBC that ByteDance was heavily involved in day-to-day operations.
A spokesperson for TikTok told Newsweek in December that the company believes that the recent bans from state-issued devices “are largely fueled by misinformation about our company.”
Newsweek has reached out to TikTok for comment.