TikTok Is Here to Stay — But What About Its Owners?
With over 1 billion active monthly users — including 80 million in the U.S. — TikTok has quickly taken the world by storm as one of the fastest growing apps in history, with no sign of slowing down.
But lurking behind the app’s immense popularity is the real threat that TikTok provides the Chinese government with access to Americans’ data and, importantly, a massive propaganda platform. As reports continue to surface of the app tracking U.S. journalists and providing backdoor access to user data, experts are sounding the alarm that TikTok poses major risks to the security and safety of all Americans.
Fortunately, President Biden is taking action. While lawmakers in Congress debate legislation that would enable a nationwide ban on TikTok, the Biden administration isn’t waiting around. New reports have leaked that President Biden is using his authority to try to force TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell the company to a U.S. owner immediately. As concerns over TikTok’s practices continue to increase, this move is coming just in time.
A foreign adversary controlling a major social media app may sound like something out of a Tom Clancy novel, but it’s a fact that TikTok is inextricably linked to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance.
While TikTok claims there’s separation between the app and its parent company, ByteDance and, by extension, Chinese Communist Party officials, have much closer ties to TikTok than they’re letting on. In fact, the relationship between the two companies is so close that TikTok employees get their W2s and checks from ByteDance and they both use the same internal messaging system. Not to mention that last year, a wave of executives at TikTok quit over concerns that they were being forced to take orders from the platform’s Chinese parent company.
Experts aren’t just concerned that the CCP could access TikTok’s U.S. user data through ByteDance, but that they already have. TikTok and ByteDance have a history of invasive surveillance, including tracking locations of U.S. users, indicating that a Chinese company that ultimately answers to the CCP has untold access to Americans’ data and isn’t afraid to use it.
What’s most concerning is how TikTok, ByteDance and the CCP can use the data they collect and weaponize the app’s platform. Any TikTok user could tell you that the app has an uncanny ability to pinpoint your interests and location and identify your personal connections to other users. This means that the same TikTok algorithms that feed Americans new dance trends and music recommendations can also be used to advance China’s propaganda interests.
With no transparency into how TikTok’s algorithm curates content, or who has sway in what it surfaces to millions of Americans, there’s a serious risk of foreign interference. The Chinese government is already known to have placedspecific TikTok videos about American politicians on users’ feeds right before the 2022 midterm elections, and ByteDance itself has a history of pushing pro-China messages to Americans on its apps. Pair that with the fact that hundreds of ByteDance employees have connections to the Chinese state media and it’s hard not to worry about who is controlling Americans’ video consumption.
The good news is that the U.S. has successfully mitigated similar threats before. In 2019, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States intervened in the acquisition of Grindr, a popular LGBTQ+ dating app, by Chinese gaming company Kunlun due to concerns over the company’s access to sensitive personal information that could put U.S. military or intelligence personnel at risk. And while it’s rare to stop an acquisition that’s already completed, U.S. lawmakers understood the gravity of the situation and took needed action to protect Americans.
Officials are now doing the same with TikTok.
Proposed solutions like storing U.S. user data in stateside data centers, or attempting to ban the app from Americans’ phones, are solutions that fail to solve the core problem. So long as TikTok is under Chinese ownership, no security agreement is going to protect us.
With Americans’ safety and security on the line, President Biden is exactly right to force the sale of TikTok to a U.S. owner.
Adam Kovacevich is the founder and CEO of the Chamber of Progress, a tech industry policy coalition promoting technology’s progressive future. You can reach the Chamber of Progress by email and Adam on Twitter.