The United States has raised national security concerns about TikTok, ordering all federal employees to remove the Chinese-owned social media app from government-issued mobile phones. Other Western governments have followed similar restrictions, citing espionage fears.
So how serious is the threat? And should TikTok users who don’t work for the government also worry about the app?
The answers depend somewhat on who you ask, and how concerned you are in general about technology companies collecting and sharing personal data.
Here’s what to know:
HOW ARE THE US AND OTHER GOVERNMENTS BLOCKING TIKTOK?
The White House said on Monday that it had given US federal agencies 30 days to wipe TikTok from all government-issued mobile devices.
Congress, the White House, the US armed forces and more than half of the US states have already banned TikTok amid concerns that its parent company, ByteDance, will provide user data – such as the history of browse a location – of the Chinese government, or push propaganda and misinformation for it.
The executive branch of the European Union has temporarily banned TikTok from employee phones, and Denmark and Canada have announced efforts to block TikTok from government-issued phones.
China says the restrictions reveal the United States’ insecurity and an abuse of state power. But they come at a time when Western technology companies, including Airbnb, Yahoo and LinkedIn, have left China or scaled back operations there because of Beijing’s strict privacy laws that dictate how companies in data collection and storage.
WHAT ARE TIKTOK’S CONCERNS?
Both the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission have warned that ByteDance may share TikTok user data with the authoritarian Chinese government.
A law implemented in China in 2017 requires companies to provide the government with any personal data related to the country’s national security. There is no evidence that TikTok ignores such data, but fears abound due to the amount of user data it collects.
Concerns were heightened in December when ByteDance said it had fired four employees who accessed the data of two journalists from Buzzfeed News and The Financial Times while trying to trace the source of a leaked report about the company. TikTok spokeswoman Brooke Oberwetter said the breach was a “gross abuse” of employees’ authority.
There is also concern about the content of TikTok and whether it can harm the mental health of teenagers. Researchers from the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate said in a report released in December that eating disorder content on the platform garnered 13.2 billion views. Almost two-thirds of US teenagers use TikTok, according to the Pew Research Center.
WHO IS PUSHING TIKTOK RESTRICTIONS?
In 2020, former President Donald Trump and his administration sought to force ByteDance to sell its US assets and ban TikTok from app stores. Courts blocked Trump’s efforts, and President Joe Biden rescinded Trump’s orders after taking office but ordered an in-depth study of the issue. A planned sale of TikTok’s US assets has been shelved.
In Congress, concern about the app has become bipartisan. Congress passed the “No TikTok on Government Devices Act” in December as part of a sweeping government funding package. Legislation allows the use of TikTok in certain cases, including for national security, law enforcement and research purposes.
House Republicans are expected to move forward on Tuesday with a bill that would give Biden the power to ban TikTok nationwide. The legislation, proposed by Rep. Mike McCaul, looking to avoid challenges the administration will face in court if it continues with sanctions against the company.
The bill received pushback from civil liberties organizations. In a letter sent Monday to McCaul and Rep. Gregory Meeks, DN.Y., ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union said that a nationwide ban on TikTok is unconstitutional and “likely to result in the banning of many other businesses and applications too.”
HOW RISKY IS TOOK?
Depends on who you ask.
US Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco expressed concerns that the Chinese government could gain access to user data.
“I don’t use TikTok, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to do so,” Monaco said earlier this month at the Chatham House policy institute in London.
TikTok said in a blog post in June that it would route all data from US users to servers controlled by Oracle, the Silicon Valley company it chose as its US technology partner in 2020. effort to avoid a country ban. But it stores data backups on its own servers in the US and Singapore. The company said it expects to remove US user data from its own servers, but it did not provide a timeline for when that would happen.
But the amount of information collected on TikTok may not be different from other popular social media sites, experts say.
In an analysis published in 2021, the nonprofit Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto said that TikTok and Facebook collect similar amounts of user data, including device identifiers that can be used to track a user and other information that may aggregate a user’s behavior across platforms. This is valuable information for advertisers.
“If you are uncomfortable with that level of data collection and sharing, you should avoid using the app,” Citizen Lab reports.
WHAT ARE OTHER EXPERTS SAYING?
While the potential abuse of privacy by the Chinese government is concerning, “it is equally concerning that the US government, and many other governments, are already abusing and exploiting the data collected by every other tech company that based in the US with similar business practices in data harvesting,” said Evan Greer, director of the nonprofit advocacy group Fight for the Future.
“If policymakers want to protect Americans from surveillance, they should promote a basic privacy law that prohibits all companies from collecting highly sensitive data about us in the first place, instead of engage in what amounts to xenophobic showboating that does nothing to protect anyone,” Greer said.
Some say there is legitimate cause for concern.
People who use TikTok may think they’re doing nothing of interest to a foreign government, but that’s not always the case, said Anton Dahbura, executive director of the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute. Important information about the United States is not limited to nuclear power plants or military facilities; it has reached other sectors, such as food processing, the financial industry and universities, said Dahbura.
WHAT DOES TIKTOK SAY?
It’s not clear what effect TikTok’s ban will have on the company’s entire government. Oberwetter, the TikTok spokesperson, said it had “no way” to know whether its users were government employees.
The company, however, questioned the restrictions, saying it was not given a chance to answer questions and that governments were cutting themselves off from a platform loved by millions.
“These restrictions are more than political theater,” Oberwetter said.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is scheduled to testify next month before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the company’s privacy and data security practices, as well as its relationship with the Chinese government.