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Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
As part of its crackdown against illegal data collection from Chinese companies, the Trump administration recently took decisive action against tech conglomerate Tencent.
The American people are already familiar with this predatory company. It owns WeChat, the popular messaging app that the White House directly targeted in a recent executive order. The order detailed how research recently uncovered a Chinese database containing billions of WeChat messages, including from Americans and other U.S. allies.
Foreign surveillance is unacceptable, and it’s without question the government’s role to protect its citizens. That’s why, on Friday, the Commerce Department added teeth to the president’s Executive Order by formally prohibiting internet hosting services and content delivery networks from powering WeChat.
But the Trump administration knows that the dangers posed by Tencent are extensive and extend far beyond this popular messaging app. As the BBC’s China media analyst Kerry Allen made clear, its portfolio of companies is wide-ranging. She went so far as to say that Tencent “has a business model that other Chinese companies can only envy – it can reach an audience of, basically, everyone.” That may be good for the Chinese military and government, but it’s without question terrible for everyone else.
Bloomberg recently reported that the Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States reached out to some of Tencent’s subsidiaries to learn more about their data security protocols. These recent actions signal that the race is now on to assess whether the White House should take further action against the company.
Make no mistake about it: the Committee has plenty to review and scrutinize.
For instance, Tencent has a 12-percent stake in Snap, potentially giving it access to Snapchat and its 46 million U.S. users.
The company also has deep ties to the mobile gaming industry, including full ownership of Riot Games. You may know Riot from their astonishingly popular game, League of Legends (27 million players). It also has a minority stake in Activision Blizzard and Epic Games, whose portfolios include gaming giants Call of Duty Mobile and Fortnite.
It’s clear that Tencent focuses its efforts on mobile applications where they can acquire valuable user behavior data. The potential danger that can come from it having this U.S. data at its fingertips incredibly serious. It could allow China to build a digital profile of every American — ultimately aiding in digital targeting and tracking capabilities.
While the connection Tencent has to these mobile apps is bad enough, perhaps the most alarming inroad the company has within the U.S. is its advisory role and investment position in Elon Musk’s Tesla.
There are nearly 1 million Tesla’s on the road, and that number is growing. Tencent may have access to Tesla’s extensive customer data, which includes call records and location tracking. But it’s the potential access to company data that poses the gravest national security risk.
Tesla’s sister company, SpaceX, develops rocket technology for NASA and the Pentagon. It also work together with the car developer on many projects. What Tencent could do with information that’s essential for our defense agencies is anyone’s guess. But I’m sure I speak for every American when I say we’d rather not find out.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and other members of Congress have already recognized the threat posed by China’s space connection. That’s why they’ve proposed amendments to the NASA Authorization Act (NAA) to comprehensive vetting of contractors that work with China and could pose potential security risks. These members know that Tencent potentially having ties to the U.S. defense industry is a huge red flag, and it’s something that the Council on Foreign Investment of the U.S. should include within its review as well.
Trump has used his power to handle WeChat, but now it’s time for the Treasury Department and Council on Foreign Investments in the U.S. to clear out the remaining threats posed by Tencent. Up until this point, the White House has already done a fantastic job of keeping America safe. Now it’s time for its executive agencies to finish the job and kick out this Chinese menace for good.