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Italy’s intelligence turns spotlight on TikTok, Chinese investments

A trans-party effort, which follows growing US concerns over the Chinese social media app, seeks to shed light on the potential dangers – and national security issues – lurking behind it. The investigation comes as Italy raises its defences against potentially unsafe DFIs and takeovers

Italy investigates TikTok. The Intelligence Committee of the Italian Parliament (known as COPASIR) has initiated a fact-finding investigation into the popular app, developed by the Chinese company ByteDance, out of security concerns.

  • The Committee is chaired by Lorenzo Guerini (a member of the Democratic Party, at the opposition) and acts as a watchdog of Italy’s secret services.
  • The investigation aims to “examine the dangers, the infiltration capacity of the social network, and try to keep an eye on possible threats,” reports Repubblica. In the coming weeks, it could widen to other apps and social networks.
  • This effort is transversally supported by parties in Parliament – just as the use of the app was transversal during the last election campaign, as politicians sought to appeal to younger voters.

The American tip-off. COPASIR’s investigation was reportedly discussed during one of the last sittings of the Committee following rising concern about the app in the United States. In late 2022 President Joe Biden signed off on banning the app from all government employees’ devices.

  • That followed mounting bipartisan preoccupation over “a number of national security concerns,” voiced in November by FBI Director Christopher Wray.
  • The Biden administration is currently negotiating with ByteDance to either tighten external oversight or sell the company in order to avoid a total ban on the app.

What’s at stake. According to a qualified Italian intelligence source, who spoke to Repubblica, “[t]he risk is twofold […] The Chinese regime could exploit TikTok profiles for influence and propaganda campaigns during elections, as happened in 2018 with Cambridge Analytica and Facebook accounts. Or it could monitor movements and carry out attacks against individuals. They can do this.”

  • It’s useful to think of data as a commodity, argued Roberto Baldoni (Director-General of Italy’s National Cybersecurity Agency), and classify it according to its relevance and impact on the State’s essential interests. “If data are of ‘strategic’ importance, they should be stored in and processed by an undoubtedly safe and trusted digital environment, formed by servers and storage systems that are physically located in the national territory– made at the highest possible percentage of domestic technologies, provided by domestic suppliers and governed by domestic rules.”

A recurring theme… This isn’t the first time COPASIR has turned the spotlight on TikTok. As early as 2020, when the Committee was headed by the League’s Raffaele Volpi, proceedings were opened (at the request of the Democratic Party) to “verify the use that the government of China makes of the sensitive data of Italian users registered on TikTok.”

  • That same year, Italy’s Privacy Authority asked the European Committee for the Protection of Personal Data to intervene along the lines of the Facebook investigation to understand whether and where dangers exist.
  • In February 2021, following the death of a 10-year-old girl in Palermo, the Authority cracked down on the app and forced it to adopt new security measures.

… and a wider issue. From 5G to cameras, Italy’s intelligence is increasingly focussed on Chinese products. Enrico Borghi, the Democratic Party’s head of security (and COPASIR member), told Repubblica that “there still isn’t enough awareness of the risks and consequences of surveillance capitalism on our lives. Especially when totalitarian countries find themselves in possession of people’s personal data.”

  • He also called for Italy to adopt Europe’s Digital Services Act, which introduces guarantees for users, as soon as possible. “Otherwise, the Cambridge Analytica scandal will repeat itself.”

China’s aims on Italy’s companies. The government is taking steps to shield Italy’s companies from strategically dangerous foreign takeovers and increase the screening of foreign direct investments in light of Beijing’s efforts to obtain Western dual-use tech (which allows for civilian as well as military use) and know-how.

  • Most recently, Datenna and Repubblica highlighted that a Chinese company, Duofu International Holding Group, acquired Famà Helicopters (specialising in the production of ultralight helicopters) in 2022 – gaining control of its production facilities, as well as its research and development department, know-how and intellectual property rights.
  • “Looking at the corporate structure, it can be seen that Duofu International Holding has full ownership of Wenzhou Dover Aviation Industry Group Co. and three other aviation subsidiaries. Although the agreement was concluded in the field of civil aviation, China aims to increase the interaction between civil research and commercial sectors and their military application through a strategic plan called Military-Civil Fusion.”

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