Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
To cybersecurity experts, the issue isn’t so black and white.
TikTok was never supposed to be political. When it launched in the US in 2018, the video app was marketed as a fun place to discover goofy content and experiment with its sophisticated editing software and vast music library. Yet nearly two years and 165 million nationwide downloads later, TikTok has been a platform for teachers strikes, QAnon conspiracy theories, Black Lives Matter protests, and a teen-led campaign to sabotage a Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The TikTok algorithm is perfectly suited to spread political content faster and to a wider audience than any social media app in history, whether the company wants to admit it or not.
Now TikTok is proving itself to be political in a much broader way, one that challenges the very existence of the app. White House officials are talking seriously about attempting to ban it (how the government would choose to do so is less clear) in the wake of rising tensions with China, where TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is based.
There are two major factors at play when we talk about the risks TikTok’s ownership could potentially pose: data privacy and censorship. While the former is potentially easier to understand (the Equifax hack, where members of the Chinese military were charged with stealing the personal information of 145 million Americans, is perhaps the most famous example), the latter, which includes how TikTok instructs its moderators and changes its algorithm, could have more existential — and more difficult-to-predict — consequences for the US at large.
Will a ban actually happen? President Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, said in July that a decision could come in “weeks, not months.” But the conversation is a lot more complicated than “Is China stealing our data?” although that’s likely how the Trump White House would prefer to frame it. TikTok has become a straw man for fears over a serious competitor to Silicon Valley: If a generation of kids is synonymous with an app owned by China, what does that mean for America’s role in global technology?
Experts in cybersecurity and Chinese tech make it clear that the issue is not black and white, and that serious concerns about national security are likely rooted not in xenophobia but in the fact that the Communist Party of China (CCP) under President Xi Jinping has a track record of surveillance, censorship, and data theft. There are also those who warn that the US banning TikTok and other Chinese-owned apps could set a dangerous precedent for a less free and open internet — ironically, the sort of internet modeled after that of China.
A short history of the US government’s TikTok anxieties
The government’s interest in TikTok’s ties to China and its communist leadership stems from last fall, when Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Tom Cotton (R-AR) called for an investigation into the company. Their statements came after reports from the Guardian and the Washington Post revealed that TikTok had at one point instructed its moderators to censor videos considered sensitive by the Chinese government.
By November, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which investigates the potential national security implications of foreign acquisitions of US companies, announced that it would be reviewing ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly, the app that would become TikTok. Meanwhile, TikTok has been steadfast in its claim that it does not send US user data to China and does not remove content sensitive to its government and would not if it were asked. Two Chinese intelligence laws from 2014 and 2017, however, require companies to assist with any government investigation and hand over all relevant data without refusal.
In a statement to Vox, a TikTok spokesperson wrote:
Protecting the privacy of our users’ data is of the utmost importance to TikTok. There’s a lot of misinformation about TikTok right now. The reality is that the TikTok app isn’t even available in China. TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy in the U.S. TikTok stores U.S. user data in Virginia, with backup in Singapore, and we work to minimize access across regions. We welcome conversations with lawmakers who want to understand our company. We’re building a team here in Washington, D.C. so lawmakers and experts can come to us with questions or concerns. We know that actions speak louder than words, which is why we’re opening Transparency Centers in LA and DC so that lawmakers and invited experts can see for themselves how we moderate content and keep our users’ data secure.
In early July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that the US was considering a TikTok ban after months of rising tensions with China and a ban of more than 50 Chinese apps including TikTok in India the week prior. Since then, TikTok users have been panicking over the potential loss of the internet’s greatest time waster; the Senate just advanced a bill to ban TikTok from all government devices. Facebook, too, is closing in: The company announced it will launch its copycat product, Instagram Reels, in the US in August.
“Banning” TikTok isn’t as straightforward as it may sound in a country built upon the First Amendment, but there are several ways it could take place. The first is that CFIUS could force ByteDance to sell off TikTok to a US-owned company by determining it a national security risk (that’s what happened to Grindr after it was sold to a Chinese company). Another is that it could put TikTok on what’s called the “entity list” so that US companies like Apple and Google would be forced to remove it from their app stores. Adi Robertson at The Verge has a thorough examination of all these possibilities, but let’s get to the real issue at play.
The case for banning TikTok: Some experts say China cannot be trusted to run a global tech company
The case for banning TikTok, for many cybersecurity professionals, is relatively simple: The risk is simply too great, no matter how wonderful the content on the app may be. Kiersten Todt, managing director of the Cyber Readiness Institute, says that despite what TikTok claims, “If the Chinese government wanted that data, they would be able to get that data.”
While that may not scare the app’s large user base of teenagers who are pretty sure the Chinese government doesn’t care about their scrolling habits, Todt says it’s possible China could be building dossiers on high-profile individuals, including information like passwords, bank accounts, internet addresses, or geolocation, all of which could then be cross-referenced with even more personal data on other apps.
“I’ve been in the national security space for a couple of decades, and there is decades’ worth of evidence and data around Chinese interest, intent, and capability to hack the US, whether that’s through intellectual property or through data theft,” Todt says. “The Chinese government hacked the broadest database of personnel in the US government. They’re the only ones who have done that.”
Todt’s other concern relates to China’s role in the global tech wars at large. “Artificial intelligence is only as good as the data that goes into it, and so if China continues to collect all of this data from populations around the world, its artificial intelligence has a lot more data input into it. How might it aggregate that data for the purposes of innovation, research and development and science?” she asks. “That can sound xenophobic, but it is a national security statement, just as we are cautious about Russia and Iran and North Korea for different reasons.”
There are other arguments for banning TikTok, ones that relate to moderation and censorship. “I find the data privacy issue to be a bit of a red herring,” says Jordan Schneider, host of the ChinaTalk podcast and newsletter. “The Chinese government has many likely more impactful ways of getting blackmail or corporate secrets or just general information about individual US nationals.”
Instead, Schneider argues that the problem is the Chinese Communist Party’s potential ability to influence conversation about politics on the app. “People today are very concerned about the amount of power [Facebook’s] Mark Zuckerberg has to value one type of speech over another or impacting elections by tweaking the algorithms and end up changing people’s opinions on certain things. So imagine if someone with the equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg’s level of power over the US has no choice but to do what the CCP wants it to do? My sense is that is the case with ByteDance.” He uses recent examples of Chinese disinformation campaigns on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube around topics like the Hong Kong protests and Taiwanese independence.
“I think they’ve probably learned the lesson of 2016, which is that Russia can interfere in elections and basically get away with it,” he says. What might that look like? For the average TikTok user, it won’t really look like anything. “You can just push certain videos more than others, and there’s no open API to double-check these things,” Schneider says. “At the end of the day, the Chinese government clearly has the leverage to push ByteDance to do this sort of thing, and would honestly be dumb not to, because the prize is enormous, which is the ability to influence who the next president of the United States is.”
The case for keeping TikTok: Chinese tech companies are not synonymous with the Chinese government
It would be easy to leave it there, but Samm Sacks, a senior cybersecurity policy fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center and New America who has testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, warns against conflating Chinese tech companies with the CCP. “There is much more of a push and pull in that relationship there, particularly around the security services’ access to private data,” she says.
Plus, she argues that the incentive — to censor content and steal user data — is worth less than owning one of the world’s most important global tech companies. “TikTok was intended to thrive and fly on its own overseas, and so it’s not necessarily in the Chinese government or ByteDance’s interest to set up the company to be secretly beholden to Beijing. There’s a commercial incentive at play that I think we have to take into account.”
Should the US government ban TikTok, Sacks says, it would be “an important step toward the US government controlling the way that Americans use the internet, which is ironically a step toward Beijing’s own cyber-sovereignty, the very thing we’ve been railing against for years.”
It also would likely be against the US’s commercial interests. “It offers a blueprint for others around the world to think, ‘Maybe we don’t trust the way that Silicon Valley companies are handling our data, so let’s just ban them, too,’” she says. “We’re already starting to see the rise of digital sovereignty in Europe and in India in these really important markets, and when we think about the so-called tech competition with China, particularly with artificial intelligence and machine learning, what is it that’s going to give US companies an edge? It’s access to large international data sets. If we are increasingly closed out of markets around the world and access to that data because we’ve helped create a blueprint for how to do it with China, I could see those same tools turned around on us.”
Instead, Sacks has called for a comprehensive federal data privacy law that would be applied to all platforms, not just Chinese-owned ones, that would create standards for better data security, algorithmic transparency, and better management of online content. “All of the things that I think we’re using is China as a foil and saying, ‘That company is a threat, let’s stamp them out,’ [could be dealt with by] developing our own vision for how we want to govern the internet in a more democratic, secure way,” she says.
China aside, a TikTok ban would have serious effects on American youth culture, where hundreds of teenagers have now built massive followings and spread important political messaging on an app that allowed them to reach huge audiences. It’s changed not only the experience of being online but the experience of being a young person.
TikTok has serious flaws — conspiracy theories in particular, some related to QAnon, Pizzagate, and the coronavirus, have thrived unchecked on the app — but there’s still no evidence that the Chinese government has anything to do with any of those. Would setting a precedent against any one Chinese-owned tech company solve the immediate issues that affect American social media users, namely misinformation, content moderation, and transparency? Or would it allow Silicon Valley companies like Facebook to continue to mimic competitors’ software and grow ever larger and more powerful? It’s now in the hands of the government to decide.
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