Commissioner Brendan Carr of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) joins Niki in the studio to discuss his concerns about the viral video app TikTok. Do TikTok’s data practices pose a threat to our national security by collecting and sharing information with the Chinese Community Party? In this episode, Commissioner Carr gives his take on the situation and the stakes.
Niki: I’m Niki Christoff and welcome to Tech’ed Up.
This week in the studio, my guest is FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr. You may have seen him on the news lately talking about TikTok and revelations that the app shares personal data with the Chinese Communist Party. It’s a timely conversation. Just this week, the New York Times reported that Tiktok has the ability to track its users’ keystrokes. I get it. TikTok is fun, and Gen Z loves it, but it’s also a trojan horse, and we need to talk about it.
Niki: Today in the studio, we have Brendan Carr, acting commissioner of the FCC. Welcome. Thank you for coming in. [Brendan: Good to be here.] Thanks.
So, it would almost seem like this podcast has a production schedule [Brendan: chuckles], which we don't. But the last episode we did, I ended with a sideswipe at TikTok, and you've recently been in the news talking about TikTok.
So I'd love to cover that off today, but let's start with you. Where are you from? How'd you end up in this job?
Brendan: Yeah, so I'm sort of a rare Washingtonian grew up in Northern Virginia, went to college here at Georgetown, went to law school at Catholic, and they have a special telecom institute at Catholic.
And I thought, okay, that could be interesting. Didn't really know a lot about telecom, and it was sort of off to the races from there. I worked at a big law firm doing telecom work for a couple of years clerking for a federal judge down in Columbia, South Carolina. I refer to that as my year abroad [Niki: chuckles], having spent most of my time in Northern Virginia and D.C. In fact, I was just down in South Carolina again while the judge was retiring, got my fix of South Carolina barbecue, which I'm a big fan of. But then, was back at a law firm for another couple years and went to the FCC, if you can believe it, ten years ago in 2012 just as a staffer in the General Counsel's office.
And I thought, let’s go there for a couple of years, get some experience, then maybe go back to a law firm. And somehow, I've been stuck there ever since. I got the chance to work for then-Commissioner Ajit Pai. That's his wireless advisor in 2014, 2015, and then was getting ready to leave the FCC back in 2016 when President Trump won, made Ajit Chair. Ajit made me General Counsel of the agency, which was something I had never, ever thought of, or aspired to do. And it was just a wonderful opportunity. And then, sort of the Forest Gump experience continued from there. Was nominated by President Trump to be one of the Commissioners confirmed by the [interrupts self] late 2017, and it's been off to the races since then. And I just absolutely love the FCC, the people there, the issues. It's just been a lot of fun and, and a tremendous amount of opportunity.
Niki: So, you’re a townie and a lifer at the FCC so far. [chuckles] How, how long is your term?
Brendan: So, they're five-year terms. So I was, got a short term the first time in 2017; was re-upped for another full five years. And so, the term runs through sometime next year, and then there's a, a hold over period you can do after that. So we'll see, but I just absolutely, absolutely, love doing the job.
Niki: And one of the things I've admired about you. And actually also that I admired about Ajit Pai, who if people don't follow him on Twitter, he's a great Twitter follow, [Brendan: He's Okay] [both chuckling]
Brendan: Let's y'know, let's not overdo it!]
Niki: You think he's okay. [Brendan: laughs] He's good. He’s midwestern; I think that's what appeals to me. He's often got Midwestern- [Brendan: Yeah] Okay! Let's not like, let's not give him too much of ego about his Twitter account. [Brendan: Right? Exactly!] Okay.
But one of the things that I've noticed, especially in the last few weeks, is that you've spoken up about issues that maybe aren't even within the FCC jurisdiction but are important based on what y'know about national security and your background in telecom.[Brendan: Yeah]
So one of the things I wanna talk about is China. Disclaimer, I'm talking about the CCP. Right? The communist party that runs China. And I, I wanna be thoughtful about that because I often use China, obviously, as a shorthand, but I'm not talking about the people living in a totalitarian surveillance state. I'm talking about the organization that governs their lives. So, but shorthand China. You've spent a lot of time thinking about national security in the way that what they build is infiltrating and impacting us here, like literally on our own ground. So let's talk hardware for a minute.
Brendan: Yeah, I think you're right.
So I've tried to do this job [sighs] a little different. I don't think there's a, a better way to do a job in D.C. than to spend as little time inside the Beltway as possible. And on one of my trips outside the Beltway, I was all the way up at Malmstrom Air Force Base, which is on the very northern edge, Great Falls, Montana. There's really nothing up there. It's, y'know, big sky country, it's wheat fields and spread across hundreds of miles we have our ICBM missile silos. And I spent time there, uh, with Colonel Jennifer Reeves. And she is the woman that is literally in charge of the Go/No Go decision when it comes to those missile silos.
And I can tell you this when you spend time with people in that environment who literally have their finger on the button every, every day, it's hard to describe it. Other than to say, it's, it's sort of an emotional experience, just the weight of that type of decision. And so, as I mentioned, there's just nothing up there at all. No population centers, y'know, just totally spread out. Except for one thing, which is dotted through that missile silo field are cell towers running high-powered Huawei gear, and you have everything from sophisticated camera technologies to other devices that, to put it lightly, is sort of over-provisioned for the type of use cases up there.
And it's very concerning, and there's been a lot of reports and worries about, y’know, that being used as some sort of early warning system if there were to be, God forbid, a launch. And you step back from that, and you look at how deeply embedded a lot of this Huawei and ZTE gear was in our networks. And really, y’know, we started with Ajit, but credit goes to him for really starting to turn the ship on that, because I would say for, for decades in DC, there was sort of a bipartisan blind spot to the true long-term threat that a lot of these entities that are beholden to the CCP pose to the U.S. He started proceeding at the FCC and we have now cut off the funding for all of that Huawei ZTE devices.
There's actually some additional funding we have to make available at this point, but that's where it started. And for me, taking a look at data flows from entities beholden to the CCP, and we built from there. After that Huawei ZTE decision, I said it was time for the FCC to a, to do a top to bottom review of all entities with ties back to communist China. And that resulted in us ultimately blocking China Mobile, China Unicom, China Telecom. And that's where I really started to develop an understanding and probably is too much to say an expertise, but such as it is when it comes to data flows and these entities tied back to China.
Niki: I think that, so let's like pull back further to big picture. So you look at how we for decades have been approaching our relationship with China. And I think there was this concept, this idea of, if we start to bring them into this, y’know, the positive parts of capitalism, I know capital capitalism is out with young people right now, [chuckles] but we start to bring them into this, and we move manufacturing over there that, that our culture will have an impact on their culture. And I think that was incredibly naive.
And I think if sitting here in 2022, it's self-evident that that was naive because there, what's happening is almost the opposite. It's, you have the CCP, the head of the communist party, kind of on the world stage, pretending that he's an elected president, and people kind of buy it, and yet they have not changed their culture at all.
Brendan: Yeah, I think Chairman Xi is more appropriate than, than President Xi.
Niki: I agree!
This is; actually it chaps my ass that we call him president [Brendan: laughs]. He is; I think they changed the title in the eighties to General Secretary. [Brendan: Yeah] But make no mistake. He's the Head of the CCP, which was the job Mao Zedong held [Brendan: Exactly] who was Chairman.
And so it, the fact that we call, I mean, it drives me nuts that we say president, [Brendan: Yeah] because it makes people feel like there's an election. [Brendan: Yeah] Which there's not!
Brendan: Yeah, you're right! I mean, you go back even to, to Hong Kong and, Margaret Thacher and Deng Xiaoping negotiated 50 years of freedom for Hong Kong. And the reformer's bet back then was pretty straightforward, which was the economic engine that was Hong Kong, was gonna be too big, too important for mainland China, for the CCP to threaten that the economic benefits would flow into mainland China and at least from a Western perspective that the ideals of freedom and capitalism and free market would follow it back in a mainland China. And it would bring them our way.
Flash forward to today, and I think that clearly has failed. That whole idea of “one country, two systems” fell apart as you saw, mainland China, y’ know, essentially retake Hong Kong with their national security laws. And so I think that has been a real eye-opening experience and just a big, big miss for, y’know, inside the Beltway foreign policy analysts to somehow think if we give them economic freedom and access to Levi jeans they're gonna come our way.
The opposites happened. Obviously, the CCP from my perspective has exported their authoritarianism. They are sort of getting into other organizations, international organizations in getting them to do their bidding.
They're obviously getting, from my perspective, a lot of Silicon Valley companies in the U.S. to sort of self-censor. And so, I think the, the flow of values has been opposite of what we thought. And that's why I think we have to be very, clear-eyed, very realistic about our relationship going forward with communist China.
Niki: I think this is so true, and I wanna go to Silicon Valley, but another thing that, that I think is a relevant topic, and this is when we talk about TikTok, in addition to the fact that, that I think that they're doing a good job of pretending [chuckling], y’know, this sort of diplomatic charade, cross your fingers behind your back and sign the Paris Climate Accord. We have been clowned ourselves on the international stage [chuckles] for the last; It's not just like for six years. And so, I mean, you don't have to comment on that, [Brendan: laughs] [both laugh] but I think it, but I think it's part of why you have this idea. I think people we're, so, Americans right now are in a moment of self-loathing without realizing that there's this enormous, bigger threat that thinks in dynasties, not decades.
Brendan: I think you're right. I think some of that self-loathing that you described is being fanned and encouraged by the CCP. And, y'know, we'll maybe get there when we talk about TikTok and some of the foreign influence campaign potential there, but you're right. I mean the, the vision that the CCP has is global, it's long-term.
I was in a very small village. Nanyuki, Kenya, y’know, two or three hours outside of a big city, down dusty roads. And in this very small town, all the billboards were filled with advertisements for Huawei. Y'know, Huawei obviously being the, the digital component of the Belt and Road initiative.
And so they have a very, y'know, global ambition, just over the weekend or on Friday, the, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. tweeted something about how the U.S., y'know, is upset about China because they view it as a challenge. That's not at all the right framing. The reason why we view China as a threat and FBI director Chris Ray just gave a very rare speech with his MI5 counterpart and talked about China being the greatest, long-term threat to U.S. security, that they'll use any tool at their disposal. And they have a strong track record of CCP-backed bribery, business, industrial espionage, blackmail, spying, uh, intellectual property theft. And so, while they have this global ambition, the means that they're using are far outside the bounds of fair play. And, and we need to sort of speak clearly about that.
Niki: I think that's exactly the right framing. And ts on, I mean, it's just absolutely.
Brendan: Yeah. We see that the whole time! [Niki: It’s so strategic!] Right? They'll steal trade secrets from a company or IP; they'll patent it. And then they'll attempt to sell it back to the same company [chuckling] [Niki: Yes!] that they stole it from.
Niki: I mean, you have to respect it in a way. It’s really sophisticated. And it's sort of like, instead of going head to, we have this huge market, we have so much money, like, despite whatever's happening with us culturally at the moment, we are still an incredibly powerful market, and yet we’re kind of being outwitted in many ways. [Brendan: Yup]
Niki: And this leads me to TikTok, which is another one of my, really pet peeves is. [interrupts self] I understand why people like TikTok, but I think it's, you've talked about this. I'm not gonna put words in your mouth. What do you think about TikTok?
Brendan: Well, look, a lot of people look at TikTok, and they say, “Well, what's the big deal? It's just another app for sharing funny videos and memes.” The reality, though, is that's just the sheep's clothing. When you look beyond those videos, and to me, the threat is not, y'know, the fact that they see these videos, the threat comes from the enormous amount of private sensitive data they're pulling about you once you've downloaded this. It's search and browsing history, keystroke patterns as this New York Times story that came out this week, identifying biometrics, including face prints and voice prints, and in some cases, draft messages. So all this information is being pulled off of your device. And up until now, TikTok has basically been going around and been asked point blank, “Is the CCP getting access to this private non-public sensitive data?”
And they just gave a melange of different answers, “Well, don't worry. It's stored in the U.S.” or “Don't worry, access controls are tightly put in place.” But a couple of weeks ago, at this point, we had this Buzzfeed news bombshell report that had leaked audio from inside a TikTok that said, quote, everything is seen in China.
And that just exposed years of, of TikTok lobbying in D.C. as being nothing more than gaslighting. Because once this data is accessed from inside China, then can you bar the door? There's no protection. There are requirements under Chinese law. And we look at this when we dealt with Huawei and ZTE, that requires any company that has access to this data to be complicit in their, y'know, espionage and other activities.
And, and look, there is no entity that exists in China that is allowed to exist in China but for one reason, which is that the CCP has determined that that entity is furthering the CCPs authoritarian goal. So a lot of people say, well, “Look, Facebook,and Twitter, Instagram, they pull similar types of data. Aren't you concerned about that?” I'd say, “Yeah, I am concerned about that. I think we need a better baseline set of privacy regulations.” In fact, Congress is looking at that right now, but the difference is when Facebook or Twitter or anybody else pulls this data in Silicon Valley at the end of the day, they're, they're profit-seeking and I have my critiques of that, but profit-seeking is a very different national security threat than having that data go back to an entity that is the CCP. And you look at their authoritarian goals and there's just no entity right now that is as sophisticated with using AI and using big data to further their goals than, than the CCP.
So that's the real threat when it comes to TikTok. It's the amount of data that they're pulling. And it's the fact that they have been misleading the American public about where that data is going. And then finally, where that data is going, which is back to the CCP.
Niki: One of the things you've called for is for app stores to take TikTok off of it. My guess is the reason they don't wanna do it is people love TikTok.
Brendan: Yeah, it certainly is one of the most downloaded apps in the Apple app store. So a couple of weeks ago,I wrote a letter to Google and Apple, and the thrust of it was to say, “Well, I believe that this is a very serious national security threat.” I could understand why Google or Apple might say, “Okay, well, that's not our domain. If it is a national security threat, then hopefully the federal government will take action.” In my view, in that letter was basically “Okay, put the national security threat to the side. The same exact issue, which is undisclosed data flows back into China is a violation of something that you are expert in, which is the application of your own app store policies.”
And there's been precedent for both Google and Apple when an application, for instance, has sent data to a server in China without disclosing it, they've kicked them outta the app store. So I said sort of put aside the national security issue per se, but just based on the undisclosed data flows, you should take action and boot TikTok from the Apple and Google app stores.
I got a response from, from Google. I'm still actually waiting for a response from Apple and it's very interesting that, y'know, despite Tim Cook coming to Washington, giving big speeches about how they battle for privacy and human rights, they're not even willing to put a letter responding to these very serious concerns about misuse of data and data flow from an app that they put in their app store.
Again, they hold the app store out as a trusted place to go, to get, y'know, safe apps, and at least with TikTok, I think that's, that's not quite the case.
Niki: So you're absoul- I think this is really actually a brilliant way to approach it, which is okay, maybe we don't have the regulatory authority or the FCC doesn't make you remove it right now, and it's gonna have to go through a big process of national security analysis to try to make them do it and they- Whatever! But you're right! They're absolutely a precedent for violating terms of service collecting data. And I know this cuz I worked at Uber [both laugh] as featured in Super Pumped. I was there during the, quite tense meetings between our CEO and Tim Cook about the way we were using data.
So there's absolutely precedent again with an American company following the rule of law. [Brendan: Yeah] And so I think it's fascinating. I will admit this. I will confess I have a burner phone [Brendan: laughs]. I have way too much time for the way I've set up my burner phone. [Brendan: Right] Like it's not connected to my, whatever, the whole thing. And it's where I keep, like, my sin apps.
So, I have TikTok. [hushed voice] During the, y'know, very beginning of the pandemic was I doing Megan Thee Stallion, I was [Brendan: Right], I literally have videos of me doing the voiceover of Kim and Kourtney Kardashian. [Brendan: laughs] I mean, I'm not proud of it! But I was bored to death, and it was sort of this brilliant moment where it caught our attention. We had absolutely nothing to do. And the content if I compare it to Instagram, which is also on my burner phone for different reasons, the content on TikTok for me is more positive. It really is a better experience. They have wonderful street artists. I discovered this, like, the quietest forest in America, in Seattle. It's funny. I mean, it really does feel light. It doesn't have the ads that you get on Instagram.
I see why it's sort of like cotton candy for people.
Brendan: Yeah. I think you're right.
Look, this isn't like Huawei and ZTE at the FCC where we have sort of an FFC license or an authorization. My view is not that the FCC or myself is gonna be a lead regulator when it comes to, to TikTok. But I'm happy to sort of use the platform and speak out based on, y'know, the understanding that I have of, of data flows from Huawei, from ZTE.
But look, the momentum now for taking action on, on TikTok has just really grown in a bipartisan basis in a global way. So you've got the Chairman of the Senate Intel committee, Mark Warner, uh, Vice Chair Marco Rubio, both sent letters to the Federal Trade Commission, basically setting the same fact pattern that I did in my letter, asking to open an investigation into whether there's been, y'know, unfair, deceptive trade practices with respect to data flows.
CFIUS, which is a committee that looks at foreign investment, it's based at the Treasury, also has an ongoing review right now. Commerce Department has a review going on on apps. Whether it's one of those three vectors, FTC, Treasury, CFIUS, or Commerce I think it's very clear that the federal government has to take action, and we cannot be half pregnant with this TikTok threat.
You've got U.S. military branches; almost all of them have banned TikTok at this point. You have the Chief Administrative Office serve, nonpartisan, of the House of Representatives issuing a cyber warning about TikTok in the last couple of days. Remember, the Australian parliament raised concerns. Members of the U.K. parliament raised concerns such that the U.K. parliament itself had a TikTok account, and they shut it down.And you got members of the European Union that have all raised concerns.
You look at this bipartisan support, global support. I have to think that at this point, the tide is going out on TikTok, and there ultimately will be action. I'd like to see it accelerated, but it feels at this point like TikTok is taking as much access to data as it can and banking on the fact that our government is either too slow or too cumbersome or ineffective to take action, and I hope they're wrong about that bet. I hope that we do move forward with some concrete steps here soon.
Niki: I, I agree, and I hope, I hope the, one of the issues is I said this actually in the last episode that we did, I think there's a communications issue, which is so many people in this country, in the United States, are really distressed about our political environment and outcomes and the polarization.
It's hard to communicate the risk to our way of life, to people who are, especially young people, so demoralized, and I think that's gonna be part of the issue. They love it. And so, the government coming in and saying, “You can't have this,” [chuckling] we've gotta communicate the urgency.
Brendan: Yeah. It's difficult. I mean, if you, if you raise concerns about Huawei and ZTE, the average consumer's “Like, okay, I don't really get it, but it doesn't impact me.” If you raise concerns about TikTok, it's like, “Well, wait a minute. Y'know, I actually, y'know, feel passionately about that,” [Niki: Yeah] and to the content point that you raised, I say, y'know, a lot of it early on appears to be innocent, but again, In the long run in, the CCP plays the long game. You don't get to exist other than them making the determination that it's gonna future the interest of, further the interest of the CCP. And we're always seeing issues, whether it's, y'know, body image issues and otherwise that are starting to emerge with respect to TikTok, that gives me reason for concern, but yeah, it's a difficult challenge to overcome.
And the, the national security threat doesn't really come from one individual or, or one parent's kid on TikTok. But it's the fact that millions and millions of people are on this and all that data is potentially being accessed from inside China. That, that's where the real national security threat pose stems from.
That's why I think, y'know, the federal government has to step in here.
Niki: And by the way, the CCP does not let kids in China rot their brains [laughs] on social media!
Brendan: [interrupts] Yeah. Well, that's the interesting thing too. I think social media, I, I think reciprocity is a great starting point for international relations, and TikTok itself is not available inside of China. There's a reason why Facebook has not been able to take hold or dominate inside of China. And so China very much views it as they don't want foreign influence inside of their country. And obviously, we're different. We're a democracy. We believe in the battle of ideas and different viewpoints, but when it comes to very clear national security threats, I think we gotta, we gotta move a bit faster.
Niki: I agree. So, in any event, I'm guilty of having been on TikTok. [Brendan: chuckles]
And by the way, I was part of the OPM hack years ago. So they've got all my stuff anyway. [Brendan: right.] Nothing I can do, but I have a friend who always says, “Niki, Tony Blinkin is not calling for your opinion,” but people are asking for your opinion. [Brendan: chuckles] So, I'm really grateful that you're bringing this up.
I think it's so important. And I think communicating why it's important and trying, I mean, even if I know I don't have kids, but I know it's hard to pry that stuff outta your kids' hands [Brendan: mm-hmm], but people are concerned about their children's privacy. And I think they are concerned about the future of this country and our way of life and our rule of law. And so I'm really grateful for the work you’re doing.
Brendan: Thanks. I really enjoy it. Having a blast doing it. And, yeah, there's nothing more important, I think, than than to talk about these issues.
Niki: Okay. And we're gonna put your Twitter handle in the, in the notes, not just Ajit…[Brendan: laughs] not his just yours! [Brendan: That's good] Thank you for coming on today.
Brendan: Really enjoyed it. Thanks!
Niki: In our next episode, my guest is Washington Post reporter Tory Newmyer, and we’re talking crypto in Washington. What is the industry doing right, and what are they missing about how the Beltway operates?
Be sure to follow the show so that you don’t miss an episode. As always, thank you for listening.