At a time when an invasion of Taiwan by Communist China looms ever larger, why worry about TikTok?
Targeted at American teens, TikTok is a mobile app for sharing short videos, owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance. After five short years on the market, it has more than one billion users worldwide. The app has lived under deep suspicion for much of that time, as American cyber-security and counter-intelligence experts have warned about its enormous reach and direct connections to the Chinese Communist Party.
During the administration of President Donald Trump, the White House considered an outright ban on the app. Senators as diverse as Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Josh Hawley (R-AR) led the charge to ban it or force its parent company to sell it. Nothing ever came of that push, and sale negotiations between ByteDance and both Microsoft and Oracle failed to reach a deal. The only concession made was that today, internet traffic to and from TikTok in the US supposedly flows only through servers owned by Oracle, which is paid by ByteDance to manage the app within the US.
Crucially, though, parent company ByteDance will not say whether data collected through the app ever passes through Chinese hands and to the Chinese government. While it has a US office, its employees frequently work on Beijing time and answer to executives back in China. A Forbes review of LinkedIn profiles for TikTok and ByteDance employees revealed that 300 of them worked previously for Chinese state media, or still do.
I noted in my recent book, Red Handed, the outspokenness of the CEO of ByteDance in emphasizing the need for the company to follow the guidance of the Communist Party in its business operations. The problem has continued to grow.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) recently wrote an op-ed that advocates banning TikTok and other social media services that are effectively controlled by the CCP from operating in the United States. They argue convincingly that TikTok's ability to harvest personal information including names, browsing and search history, plus device information and GPS tracking information, give it a unique and pernicious power.
That power comes in two ways, both of which pose harm. First, the app is extraordinarily addictive, and becomes more so as you interact with it. Its famous "For You" video playlists are driven by powerful algorithms that are tuned constantly to feed you more of these 10-15 second video clips that you like and keep you glued to your screen. This is damaging to young brains, training them to demand fresh stimulation every 15 seconds, which discourages their ability to mentally focus, stay engaged on a single task, and pause for reflection. TikTok deliberately and effectively carpet-bombs their developing minds with the digital equivalent of another Chinese-made import: Fentanyl.
Last month, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) agreed, saying Trump was right to pursue a ban. "This is not something you would normally hear me say, but Donald Trump was right on TikTok years ago," Warner told the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Biden administration rolled back its predecessor's efforts to ban TikTok and is currently in negotiations with the company through the government's Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). According to published reports, a draft agreement would require exclusive US storage for all TikTok data, monitoring of TikTok's powerful content recommendation algorithms, and create an oversight board comprised of cyber-security experts. The terms of the draft agreement would not require ByteDance to sell TikTok, as the Trump administration previously demanded.
The danger of this approach is obvious – that the app and all the collected data remain under the ownership of a Chinese company which, according to Chinese law, is required to provide this data to the Communist government upon request, at any time. Like any "free" app, TikTok uses its data to sell targeted advertising. Unlike other major social media apps, this data is available to a hostile government.
The draft agreement, which has not been announced or made public, has not satisfied TikTok's critics. FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, a longtime critic of TikTok, renewed his call earlier this month for the US government to ban the app from Apple's and Google's app stores over the national security risks posed by its ties to China. "I don't believe there is a path forward for anything other than a ban," he said. Speaking on a Wall Street Journal podcast recently, he called the app, "... the sheep's clothing. TikTok functions as a very sophisticated surveillance tool."
Technology specialists take a more detailed approach to the problems. They separate the threats posed by TikTok into two categories: the national security threats, and the information warfare threats. Beyond the security risks that have led government agencies and even some government contractors to ban the app from employees' work phones, TikTok also censors information sensitive to the Chinese Communist regime. It does this routinely in China, as we would expect, but also outside of China at the government's behest. Further, they note that the app circulated false information about the COVID-19 virus during the pandemic and believe China could potentially do so again as part of broader propaganda efforts to influence public discourse within the US.
Technology specialists also urge a broader approach that deals with the "software development kits" (SDKs) used by thousands of app creators as shortcuts in development. Some of these SDKs gather personal user data outside the purview of the app that installed them on the device. While TikTok gets all the attention because of its immense popularity, SDKs are embedded into thousands of other apps, from weather services and games to "period minder" apps for women. The SDK creators receive user data from that app, and once they have it, there are no restrictions on their ability to sell it.
If the controversy over TikTok's intrusiveness accomplishes anything, it will be to raise awareness that the problem is deeper and more widespread than just one silly app with 136 million American users.
Peter Schweizer, President of the Governmental Accountability Institute, is a Gatestone Institute Distinguished Senior Fellow and author of the new book, Red Handed: How American Elites are Helping China Win.