Jan. 17 (UPI) — The U.S. future of TikTok is increasingly uncertain as lawmakers and government organizations move to ban the app, while experts continue to debate the national security risk it may pose.
Owned by the Chinese tech giant Bytedance, TikTok is one of the world’s most popular apps, with more than a billion users, including 135 million in the United States. The app, however, has faced increased scrutiny over its links to China as U.S. agencies fear the data it collects can be misused by the Chinese government.
At least a dozen states — Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, Utah, Alabama, Idaho, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Kentucky — have moved to ban the app on government-issued devices citing privacy concerns in recent months.
Last month, the Senate passed legislation to ban TikTok from government-issued devices. The No TikTok on Government Devices Act by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., was passed by unanimous consent.
“TikTok is a Trojan horse for the Chinese Communist Party,” Hawley said in a statement after his measure was passed. “It’s a major security risk to the United States and until it is forced to sever ties with China completely, it has no place on government devices.”
Efforts to ban the app extend to the previous administration as the U.S. military banned its members from using TikTok on government-issued devices in 2019 and 2020.
In August 2020, then-President Donald Trump went as far as to issue an executive order prohibiting any U.S. business with ByteDance after threatening to pull TikTok from U.S. digital storefronts unless the company sold its U.S. business to Microsoft. At the time Trump said TikTok and the Chinese messaging app WeChat, which he also sought to ban, automatically capture vast swaths of information from their users, which could potentially be used by Beijing for purposes including spying on Chinese nationals in the United States.
“This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information — potentially allowing China to track the locations of federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail and conduct espionage,” the executive order said.
Trump’s efforts were ultimately thwarted when a federal judge prevented that ban from going into effect. But FBI Director Christopher Wray has said the platform poses several security concerns and Federal Communications Commission head Brendan Carr continues to voice support for efforts to ban it.
Some experts have suggested such concerns are overblown. A study by Milton Mueller and Karim Farhat, professors at the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Public Policy’s Internet Governance Project, found that much of the data collected by TikTok would not be useful for espionage purposes. Mueller told UPI that much of the outrage is a cover for anti-China policies.
“It would be more accurate to say that national security is the cover story for people who want to decouple from China and deglobalize the economy,” Mueller said. “By claiming that the entire country is threatened, they can try to justify extreme measures and pre-empt critical thinking.”
An audit by ByteDance did find that company employees tracked two journalists who were writing about the social media platform.
The Bytedance employees accessed IP addresses and locations of the journalists to determine if they were in close proximity to ByteDance employees suspected of leaking information to the media.
The two journalists whose surveillance was exposed by the internal audit worked for Buzzfeed and the Financial Times.
The head of audit and risk control at ByteDance, Song Ye, has left the company. Three employees, including TikTok’s head of internal audit, Chris Lepitak, were fired in connection to the audit.
Kian Vesteinsson, a research analyst for the nonprofit digital rights think tank Freedom House, told Wired that the use of social media data to monitor people is not unique to China or TikTok.
“In recent years, U.S. government agencies have monitored social media accounts of people coordinating protests in the U.S. and done things like searched electronic devices throughout the country and at the border,” Vesteinsson said. “These sorts of tactics undermine the idea that this is only a foreign threat.”
Mueller and Farhat noted that many social media apps can collect various kinds of data and recommend that users in sensitive industries decrease their usage of any social media app to prevent surveillance.
“The only data of espionage or national security value on TikTok would be placed there by a very small number of people with close connections to U.S. national security activities,” Mueller said. “Those users should not be romping around on Instagram, YouTube or TikTok.”