The third largest social media app TikTok, owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, has faced widespread criticism over concerns that Beijing is using it to collect sensitive information about its users. As a result, in late February, the EU banned the app from being used on the work devices of staff in all main institutions, and many other countries, including Slovakia, are following suit.
In the US, the platform is facing the threat of an outright ban. Even the fact that TikTok’s CEO successfully managed to defend his firm during a five-hour-long hearing before a US congressional committee at the end of March may not necessarily improve the circumstances. However, the belief that TikTok represents a threat to national security is not just a US or EU concern but is growing around the world – particularly in the UK, Canada, France and, most recently, Australia. Slovakia has just banned the use of TikTok on the Parliament’s premises, and the staff of the Slovak National Council office cannot use the app on any Parliament-owned device. However, there are also other countries that introduced such restrictions several years ago in order to protect citizens from viewing inappropriate content.
Central to the concern is the belief that China, through its vaguely defined National Security Law, would be able to force ByteDance to provide collected user data for intelligence or disinformation purposes. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, however, denied the allegations, stating that the Chinese government has never asked TikTok to provide any data and that any request would be denied. With the prior restraints in place, many governments are now seeking to avoid the possibility of government officials being exposed to Chinese cyberattacks through TikTok and passing sensitive and classified information back to them. The app’s algorithm has also been criticised for potentially promoting content supporting Chinese government policies. This raises questions as to whether TikTok is being used to promote Chinese interests globally, such as promoting certain types of content and censoring others, thus allowing Beijing to influence public opinion worldwide. These concerns were expressed by FBI Director Christopher Wray last week. He stated that the worry stems from the Chinese influence of the app to spread misinformation and to manipulate the algorithm, which could be used to influence operations or to control the software of millions of devices, giving the possibility to technically compromise personal devices if China chooses to do so.
Despite accusations of TikTok being used for cyber espionage for China and of manipulating user data, there are several factors that relativise the level of risk. TikTok collects, stores and uses user data, like many other apps on the market, and this data is not necessarily of a more valuable or different nature. Moreover, there is currently no publicly available evidence to show that the Chinese government is actually obtaining user data from TikTok for the purpose of espionage or for any other reason. It also raises questions about both the nature of the data that TikTok is shown to be collecting on its users and the possibility that it could be used for espionage purposes. A third reason is that TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, has taken steps to alleviate concerns about its links to Beijing and to increase the security of users’ data. While Douyin, the original version of the app, is designed exclusively for China, TikTok is designed primarily for the foreign market, with all data stored outside of China. In the case of the US, all data of users there is stored on US soil, and the backup is in Singapore. Last but not least, the furore surrounding TikTok and its possible use for espionage purposes in favour of Beijing significantly damages China’s image and its influence within the international technology industry. If Beijing was indeed using or planning to use the app for espionage activities, it could, in view of the above arguments, ultimately do more harm than good.
It should be noted that China is an experienced actor with high organisational standards, especially when it comes to espionage operations to obtain sensitive information. This blatant and mass method of using a popular app such as TikTok to obtain data and disseminate information would be a high-risk approach that could eventually be more likely to damage China’s soft power and influence within the international technology industry.
In the context of the growing geopolitical rivalry between China and the West, led by the US, it is understandable that countries are taking a cautious approach to TikTok, paying close attention to investigating the whole case and taking precautionary measures regarding its use. The way in which the third most popular social media platform handles the data of its users and its possible links to Beijing poses an even greater risk, especially in a situation in which there is more and more open talk of Chinese espionage activities in the world.
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