TikTok, a popular app to create short, looping videos, is owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based internet technology company. It debuted in China under the name “Douyin” in 2016. In 2017, TikTok launched for iOS and Android devices outside China. When ByteDance merged with Musical.ly in 2018, TikTok became a global sensation.
TikTok’s growth in the last three years is nothing short of phenomenal. It boasts more than 800 million active users worldwide and has been downloaded more than 2 billion times from the iPhone App and Google Play stores. It’s especially popular among young people, with 41 percent of users aged 16-24.
Many TikTok videos are fun, goofy, and short — perfectly suited for a generation lacking much of an attention span and hungry for non-traditional entertainment. Furthering the appeal of the app is its mechanism that promotes the videos of relatively unknown users, allowing even those with small followings to “go viral.”
Tiktok’s popularity has turned ByteDance into one of the world’s most valuable start-up companies, but has also invited scrutiny. Like almost all social media companies, TikTok collects an enormous amount of data on its users, including IP addresses and browsing history.
Researchers have raised serious privacy and data security concerns about the app for years. In early 2019, TikTok paid a $5.7 million fine to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for illegally “collecting and exposing locations of young children, as well as failing to delete information on underage children when instructed to do so.” TikTok was under similar investigations in the United Kingdom and India for allegations over its collection and misuse of data gathered from children.
In January 2020, internet research company Check Point Research reported several vulnerabilities within the TikTok application, which researchers said could easily allow malicious attackers to hurt a TikTok user by making private videos public or revealing information saved on the account, such as personal emails. Then, in February, Tiktok reportedly took advantage of an iPhone system loophole, enabling the app to access any data an iPhone user copies to his clipboard without the user’s knowledge.
A Tool of Communist China
Unlike western social media companies, like Google, that use collected user data mainly for targeted advertising, ByteDance works closely with the Chinese government to advance Beijing’s foreign policy objectives, promote government-sanctioned propaganda, help Beijing police dissidents, and censor free speech for users both inside and outside of China.
Zhang Fuping, ByteDance’s vice president, is the head of the company’s Chinese Communist Party committee, which is part of the company’s governance structure. CCP members at the company routinely host gatherings to study the speeches of CCP’s General Secretary Xi Jinping and pledge “to follow the party in technological innovation.”
According to a report by Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), ByteDance has played an active role in condoning the CCP’s human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in China by collaborating “with public security bureaus across China, including in Xinjiang where it plays an active role in disseminating the party-state’s propaganda on Xinjiang.” The ASPI report calls TikTok a “vector for censorship and surveillance.”
Even more worryingly, ByteDance has applied Beijing’s censorship to non-Chinese citizens as well. The Guardian reported that TikTok instructs its content moderators to “censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong,” all sensitive subjects that the Chinese government has censored for decades.
According to The Guardian’s report, TikTok’s censorship comes in two forms. One is to delete content and often the owner’s account from its platform. This is what happened to Feroza Aziz, an American TikTok star. Her account was deleted after she posted a video criticizing Beijing’s mass internment of Uyghur Muslims. Only after media outcry did TikTok reinstate Aziz’s account.
Another form of censorship TikTok deploys is to leave the content up to limit its distribution through TikTok’s algorithmically curated feed—essentially what amounts to “shadow banning.” Two Quartz reporters experimented with TikTok by posting a clip of the famous Tank Man, the young Chinese man who stood in front a column of tanks right before China’s People’s Liberation Army cracked down on pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989. They quickly found out that the clip was only visible to the TikTok account owner but not to anyone else.
In addition to censorship concerns, Vicky Xu, one of the authors of the ASPI report on TikTok and a human rights activist, tweeted: “It’s a really bad idea to let TikTok have young people’s passwords when they’re future politicians and scientists that Beijing may choose to target.” In other words, the information TikTok collects today may assist China’s intelligence community in blackmailing people in the future.
Sounding the Alarm on TikTok
Reports of TikTok serving as a tool for the CCP’s censorship and surveillance prompted U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) to request the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to investigate TikTok in October 2019. That same month, Sen.Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK) also asked Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, to determine the national security risk posed by TikTok.
The Pentagon barred all U.S. military personnel from having TikTok on their devices and has been joined by several U.S. government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Agency, in prohibiting TikTok on government-issued devices. After India formally banned TikTok and 58 other Chinese apps due to security concerns in July this year, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated the United States might follow suit.
President Trump’s recent talk of banning the app, therefore, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Yet to those who loathe Trump, anything Trump supports, even if it is the right thing or good policy, should be assigned to the most menacing motive.
Taylor Lorenz, a technology reporter for The New York Times, in mid-July tweeted a screenshot from Brian Feldman, a New York Magazine writer, claiming that the “selective fear of TikTok” is based on “xenophobic” and “racist” biases. Lorenz called it a “good explanation.” She later deleted her tweet following the outcry of both American and Chinese journalists who cover China. Last weekend, Lorenz published a long article on Trump’s possible TikTok ban in The New York Times, yet barely mentioned TikTok’s well-documented security risks and censorship on behalf of the Chinese government.
Instead, Lorenz presented the app in the most positive light, calling it “an information and organizing hub for Gen Z activists and politically-minded young people.” She wrote that banning the app would disrupt a new entertainment business and a critical outlet for social justice issues. Then she floated the idea that Trump’s possible ban of TikTok is likely a retaliation because a few users declared they were responsible for creating outsized expectations for Trump’s rally at Tulsa in June by registering for tickets without any intention to show up.
Not to be outdone, Vogue magazine chimed in, claiming Trump wanted to ban TikTok not out of national security concerns but in retaliation against Sarah Cooper, a comedian who became famous by lip-syncing Trump’s speech and interviews on the app.
If Vogue’s wild speculation sounds like a bad joke, what’s not funny is that former top Obama official Samantha Power tweeted the story to her more than 223,000 Twitter followers. Power rose to fame by covering the Yugoslav War, served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Obama administration, and is rumored to be Joe Biden’s top choice for the secretary of State position should he win the 2020 presidential election. It’s inexcusable, given all her advocacy for human rights and background in foreign policy, that she would lend her credibility to such unfounded speculation rather than taking TikTok’s national security threat seriously.
Banning TikTok is the right policy to protect not just America’s national security interests but also safeguard the privacy and freedom of expression of millions of Americans. Microsoft is in discussions to buy TikTok’s U.S. operation, a deal that if completed will ensure at least the data collection for American users will follow U.S. law and will not fall in the hands of the Chinese government. Until a change like that has fixed its many dangerous qualities, any defense of TikTok is simply indefensible.