How TikTok Became a US-China National Security Issue
Depending on whom you ask, the short-form video app TikTok is where you watch goofy dances and makeup tutorials, or it’s a gravely sophisticated threat to US national security.
Because TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance – and because China is known to be interested in having its technology companies share the data they collect – its ubiquitous popularity among Americans carries geopolitical implications far beyond the mobile-phone screen.
WHAT MAKES TIKTOK DIFFERENT FROM OTHER SOCIAL MEDIA SITES?
Like US-owned social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, TikTok collects all sorts of data about each user and through an algorithm, uses that information to deliver more of what the person seems to want.
But TikTok is viewed as potentially the most advanced, and uncannily effective, at learning about your interests – based on how long you stay with a video and whether you like, forward or comment on it – and, through its algorithm, delivering more of that to your “For You” feed. Some people joke that TikTok’s “For You” knows you better than you know yourself.
That makes Chinese ownership of TikTok – the most salient difference between it and other social media, in the eyes of US critics – particularly worrisome. So does this: American adult users of TikTok will spend an average of 56 minutes a day on the app this year, far more than on either Facebook or Instagram, according to researcher Insider Intelligence.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST WORRIES ABOUT TIKTOK?
The national security concerns involve hypothetical, though not implausible, scenarios in which China’s government employs its influence over ByteDance to turn TikTok into an instrument of harm against American interests, through such channels as:
Data collection: Along with what you seem to be interested in, TikTok learns your computer’s unique internet protocol (IP) address as well as – if you choose to let it – your precise location data and who is on your contact list. All that could be used to “develop profiles on millions of Americans” that could be used to blackmail them, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, both Republicans, wrote in November.
Espionage: A 2020 executive order by then-president Donald Trump broached the possibility that China could use TikTok’s data to “track the locations of federal employees and contractors” and to “conduct corporate espionage”.
Influence operations: US national security officials are concerned that TikTok could try to shape US public opinion by strategically suppressing or promoting certain videos.
IS THERE EVIDENCE TO BACK UP THOSE CONCERNS?
In December, the chief executives of ByteDance and TikTok admitted that ByteDance employees had inappropriately accessed the IP address of American users, including journalists writing critical stories about the company.
The Justice Department is investigating whether that amounted to improper surveillance of Americans. While not involving TikTok specifically, there have been numerous reports in recent years about China attempting through various means to influence US politics, including elections. These types of concerted campaigns continue to proliferate across all social media apps.
WHAT DOES THE COMPANY SAY?
TikTok says its independence is reflected in the fact that its chief executive officer is based in Singapore, its chief operating officer in the US and its global head of trust and safety in Ireland.
“I understand that there are concerns stemming from the inaccurate belief that TikTok’s corporate structure makes it beholden to the Chinese government or that it shares information about US users with the Chinese government,” TikTok CEO Chew Shou Zi said in prepared remarks to be delivered on Thursday (Mar 23) at a hearing in the US Congress. “This is emphatically untrue. Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country.”
TikTok had hoped that concerns over data had been resolved through its so-called Project Texas, which included partnering with Austin, Texas-based Oracle to store user data and audit the platform’s algorithms.
WHAT ARE THE WORRIES ABOUT TIKTOK OUTSIDE GOVERNMENT CIRCLES?
Its success at holding the attention of its users has alarmed some parents and educators. Qustodio, a maker of parental control software, analysed 400,000 family accounts for TechCrunch and found that American teenagers and kids spent an average of 99 minutes a day on TikTok in 2021, compared with 61 minutes on YouTube.
A number of viral TikTok trends have also raised concern. A particularly notorious one, called the blackout challenge, was linked to the deaths of at least 15 kids age 12 or younger, plus five additional children age 13 and 14, over an 18 month span, Bloomberg Businessweek reported in November.
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