Thursday, November 30, 2023

Analysis | How TikTok Became a US-China National Security Issue

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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 Ltd. — 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.  

1. 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. 

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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 Shou Chew said in prepared remarks to be delivered Thursday 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 Corp. to store user data and audit the platform’s algorithms. 

5. 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, analyzed 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. 

6. What actions have been taken against TikTok?

Citing national security concerns, India in 2020 banned use of TikTok and dozens of other apps developed by Chinese companies. The move came days after a border dispute between India and China that left 20 Indian soldiers dead. The US has prohibited downloading or using TikTok on federal government devices; so has the UK, Canada, Belgium and Taiwan. More than two dozen US states passed similar bans, some of which apply to public university campus WiFi networks. Trump’s 2020 executive order would have effectively banned TikTok in the US but was stalled in the courts until Trump’s term ended. Biden chose a different course, initiating a national security review of the app that has gone on for years with no resolution. More recently, the Biden administration has pressed for ByteDance to divest its stake in TikTok or face a US ban. 

7. What else is under consideration?

Four bills proposed in the US Congress would limit TikTok’s power. The one favored by the Biden administration would give the president authority to ban or force the sale of foreign-owned technologies, applications, software or e-commerce platforms if they present a national security threat to US users. TikTok’s leadership has discussed the possibility of separating from its Chinese parent company as a last resort, Bloomberg reported.

8. What would it mean for the US to ban TikTok?

There’s no real precedent for banning a consumer technology as popular as TikTok in the US. (It’s more the kind of thing that would happen in China, which has banned Facebook since 2009.) Such a move could cause real backlash from users who see the social media app as part of their generational identity. Others fear that it could prompt a wave of similar responses from countries blocking American technology companies.

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