FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing concerning worldwide threats, on Capitol Hill March 8, 2023 in Washington, DC.

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing concerning worldwide threats, on Capitol Hill March 8, 2023 in Washington, DC. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

TikTok, COVID, and Chips: Senators and Intelligence Community Reinforce Diverse Threats Posed by China

During an annual hearing on the biggest threats to the United States, senators and top intelligence officials discussed China’s growing non-military influence.

Despite the war in Ukraine, China–and particularly non-military U.S. vulnerabilities to China–occupied most of the discussion when the heads of the nation’s intelligence agencies briefed lawmakers on the top threats to the United States on Wednesday.

“The very nature of national security is undergoing a profound transformation,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said at the top of the hearing. “We can no longer just pay attention to who has the most tanks, airplanes, or missiles. We also need to focus on technology, [research and development] dollars, strategic investment flows and supply chains.”

For the most part, there was broad—almost choreographed—agreement between the lawmakers and the heads of the FBI, NSA, DIA, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, on a few key points: The United States still doesn’t know the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic but China is thwarting efforts to find out, and China’s reach via popular apps and electronics is a major vulnerability.

“​​The convergence of emerging technologies is likely to create breakthroughs that are not as predictable, and the risk of rapid development of more interconnected asymmetric threats to U.S. interest,” ODNI director Avril Haines told lawmakers. Moreover, she said, the way autocratic states are adopting new digital technologies and controlling them among their populations threatened to “distort publicly available information and [was] probably outpacing efforts to protect digital freedoms, and at the same time, educate audiences on how to distinguish fact from propaganda.”. 

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., gave name to the somewhat amorphous “emerging technology” threat, asking the FBI director whether China could use the TikTok video-sharing app “to control data on millions of users?...Control the software on millions of devices, given the opportunity to do so?…Could they use it to drive narratives to divide Americans against each other? For example, let's say China wants to invade Taiwan, to make sure that Americans are seeing videos arguing why Taiwan belongs to China, why the U.S. should not intervene?”

FBI Director Christopher Wray answered “yes” to all of those questions, and emphasized that in the last case, the intelligence agencies might “not see many of the outward signs of it happening.”

When pressed by a different lawmaker to describe what threat, precisely, TikTok poses to Americans, Wray said future AI could enable more targeted spying. 

“If you look at the Chinese government's gobbling up of information and data, and then the use of AI and other tools, ultimately supercomputing, things like that to marshal all that data to conduct targeting for espionage, targeting for IP theft, targeting for the all the things that I and others on this panel, I've been calling out about the Chinese government. Data is the coin of the realm,” he said.

The testimony comes as lawmakers consider legislation to permit the Commerce Department to ban apps from China and some other nations. But Wray’s response shows the enormous challenge officials have in convincing Americans to permit banning popular apps. The degree to which the average American feels threatened by “targeted IP theft” and “espionage” from the Chinese government is hard to quantify, but some privacy and civil liberties groups are already opposing legislation to ban TikTok, citing the First Amendment. 

The Worldwide Threats report that accompanied the hearing highlighted a variety of other U.S. economic vulnerabilities to China.

“China is leading the world in building new chip factories, with plans to build dozens of semiconductor factories by 2024, most of which will be dedicated to producing older, more mature technologies. While China only accounted for 11 percent of worldwide semiconductor fabrication capacity in 2019, it is forecasted to reach 18 percent in 2025,” the report said. “China’s dominance in the mining and processing of several strategic materials, including rare-earth elements, presents a major vulnerability to the United States. China could use its control of these critical minerals markets to restrict quantities for commercial advantage or as a tool in a political or trade dispute.”

Adapting to those trends could mean sourcing electronics and minerals closer to home, from more secure supply chains, which could raise costs. 

Rubio outlined the challenge of preparing the American public to face those costs, in money and convenience, of untangling from China: “The greatest threat facing America is not another country. It is whether or not we have the ability and the willingness to accurately assess and appropriately adapt our foreign and domestic policies in this time of historic revolutionary and disruptive technological, social, economic, and geopolitical changes.”