Is TikTok a security threat?


Fact Box

  • The video-sharing social media app, TikTok, reached a milestone of three billion downloads by July 2021 and 120 million monthly active users in January 2022. 
  • Owned by Beijing-based tech company ByteDance, TikTok gained worldwide prominence after acquiring the lip-syncing app in 2018. 
  • The most viewed TikTok video of 2022 was Zach King’s Harry Potter illusion, with 2.2 billion views.  
  • In a March 2023 CBS News poll, 56% of respondents believe TikTok is a national security risk, and 61% favor the US government banning TikTok.

Luke (Yes)

TikTok is a social media app whose parent company, ByteDance, resides in China. According to Chinese laws, TikTok's data is made readily available to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Were the Chinese government within the US actively creating dossiers on every American citizen, eyebrows would certainly be raised. However, since the packaging comes as a social media app, many users, including some congress members inside the US government, seem unconcerned. 

As it stands, TikTok not only harvests users' data, it harvests much more data compared to other apps, which, to restate, is data that is immediately available to the CCP. Furthermore, not only is US data at risk, FBI director Wray warns that China could use TikTok to influence users' thoughts and may potentially hack their phones. Notably, the version of TikTok used in the US and abroad is currently banned in China, but the Chinese version, Douyin (owned by ByteDance and the CCP), has a focus on education, rate limits youth to only a certain amount per day, and is available only to Chinese citizens. 

Within the US, these issues have led to the Biden administration banning TikTok on government devices, a step first pursued by President Trump. This aligns with steps countries, such as India, which has already banned TikTok's use within its borders. These issues are not benign, especially when considering the West vs. East strains over the Ukrainian conflict and the nature of 21st-century competition and conflict. The Chinese government and TikTok is a threat to the US and its interests; we should not be giving the Chinese government access to American citizens, be it for data, influence, or hacking.

Maha (No)

TikTok may be addictive, among other things. However, adding 'a national security threat' to this list can be a stretch. Firstly, there's no publicly available evidence indicating the Chinese government has access to TikTok's data. Moreover, the company has denied Forbes' report, claiming that TikTok's parent company ByteDance plans to use data 'to monitor the personal location of some specific American citizens.' 

TikTok's CEO has even written to Republican senators denying handing US data to the Chinese Community Party in the past or doing so in the future. 

He also mentioned Project Texas, which aims to 'make substantive progress toward compliance with a final agreement with the US government that will fully safeguard user data and US national security interests.' This isn't the first time TikTok worked with the US government. During the Trump administration, TikTok planned a deal with Oracle to store its US users' information, preventing ByteDance from accessing it. 

Putting TikTok's own claims aside, the app wouldn't have made it to app stores without widespread Apple and Google store approval. This sort of approval usually follows the companies strictly analyzing an app's security and privacy aspects. For instance, Google Play requires developers to mention privacy and security practices in the data safety section. If this isn't approved, app submissions or app updates are rejected. 

Citizen Lab further confirmed TikTok's safety. The group found no evidence of 'overtly' malicious behavior.' Moreover, it revealed that TikTok's data collection practices are no more intrusive than Facebook's. While TikTok may not be a national security threat, users can take measures to ensure their privacy while using the app. This will give them peace of mind and avert any data collection threats.

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