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Closed up image of a Female using TikTok application on a smartphone in home. 5 September, 2022. ChiangMai, Thailand.
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Is TikTok a National Security Risk?

Consuming without thinking is fertile soil for propaganda

Around 170 million Americans have TikTok on their phones. Whether or not TikTok was originally designed to spy on its users and spread propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party, it can be co-opted to do so. A bipartisan bill passed by Congress and signed by President Biden on April 24 calls on ByteDance Ltd., the company that owns TikTok, to sell the app in the next nine months. Otherwise, TikTok will be banned from Google and Apple app stores. 

TikTok “Ban” in the U.S.

Several other countries have banned TikTok on government issued devices, including the U.S., due to a high risk the Chinese state actors obtaining personal data for surveillance, tracking, and blackmailing government officials and other people of interest. Additionally, the Chinese government has used social media data to threaten defectors from China who criticize the government, even when they live in other countries that allow free speech.

Among the countries that have banned TikTok on government devices are Canada, India, the European Union, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand. Taiwan has a public sector ban on TikTok after being alerted by U.S. intelligence of that TikTok posed a cybersecurity risk. Several other countries have restricted the use of the app either for government officials or for everyone.

And, of course, TikTok is banned in China. Chinese citizens only use social media apps that are subject to the Communist Party’s censors. In China, there are alternative social media apps, such as WeChat, Sina Weibo, and Temu. Instead of TikTok, people within China use Douyin.

TikTok was only one part of the bill that was recently signed by President Biden. The bill also included sanctions on Russia and Iran, fentanyl trafficking (including from China), and Ukraine aid. The portion pertaining to protections against applications developed by foreign adversaries gives ByteDance nine months to sell TikTok with an additional three months if the sale is in negotiations. If the company is not willing to divest of the app, then TikTok will not be available for download on Apple and Google Play, and security updates will not be permitted to be installed on U.S. users’ phones, rendering the app unusable in the U.S.

TikTok Is Not Getting Banned. It’s Getting Sold.

The debate over the constitutionality of the divesture hinges on whether it violates ByteDance’s First Amendment rights or if TikTok poses a national security risk because of the Chinese government’s authority over the tech sector. To be clear, the bill does not actually ban TikTok. It is a forced sale. This is an important nuance.

President Trump had previously signed an executive order that banned transactions with TikTok in the U.S. and also called on a forced sell, but the order did not stand because due to free speech. This recent bill will also be challenged in court on the same grounds. However, in this case, the bill was passed by Congress, and the evidence that TikTok poses a national security threat has strengthened since 2020. One point in favor of ByteDance is that Montana attempted to ban TikTok, but the state Supreme Court overturned the law. This may serve as recent legal precedent that a ban on TikTok would violate free speech.

Second, while the bill was being debated in Congress, TikTok sent push notifications to users encouraging them to contact their representatives to vote “no” to a TikTok ban.  The WSJ reports that when a video of ByteDance’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, was posted on TikTok, encouraging users to lobby their Senator, the video went viral instantly, which seemed to indicate ByteDance used heating to promote the video on the platform. (“Heating” is a way to manually ensure a video receives a certain number of views.)  Lawmakers saw this as proof that the company can use its audience and algorithm technology for its, and by extension the Chinese Communist Party’s, ends.

After TikTok’s campaign, some representatives’ phone lines were overwhelmed with calls, including those by teenagers under 18, telling them to vote “no” to the TikTok ban. As a result, the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party sent a letter to the FTC calling for an investigation. The Select Committee contends that TikTok engaged in deceptive business practices by claiming the bill is a ban on TikTok. Additionally, TikTok may have violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act by sending a political message to a large number of minors.

The House ended up passing the bill 360-58.

National Security Risk

In China all private companies are beholden to the Chinese government, meaning they must cooperate if the government wishes to use their data or their products for its own purposes. Security expert and senior fellow at AEI Klon Kitchens explains in this interview why the private sector’s entanglement with the Chinese government is a security issue:

The boundary line between the private sector and the government has become increasingly blurry in China under Xi Jinping. Xi’s restrictive privacy laws place heavy limits on the private sector, but do not apply to the Chinese government. While these laws were needed to rein in tech companies’ use of data, they also serve to keep private companies in check. Alibaba and Didi are prime examples of what can happen when a company is better able to track citizens than the government.

Even though ByteDance spokespeople have maintained that the Chinese government does not access TikTok and its data, a 2022 BuzzFeed investigation found that the Chinese government accessed U.S. data on several occasions at least until 2022. Ther report also found that content normally censored in China was also being censored on TikTok, including videos about Tiananmen Square, Tibet, and Falun Gong.

Data privacy issues are not the largest security concern. The problem, says James Andrew Lewis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is not necessarily what TikTok does now, but the potential to install surveillance software in future updates and patches to the app. It is not beyond the Chinese government to do this, considering it installed surveillance apps on cell phones in Xinjiang and the 2022 Olympics app had censorship coding.

Others point out that if the Chinese government really wanted to surveil Americans through social media, it would buy Facebook on the marketplace. However, that sale would be evaluated by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. and likely would not be approved given the current tensions between China and the U.S.

TikTok Censors and Propaganda

Even though ByteDance’s CEO Shou Zi Chew made appeals to American’s freedom of expression in his video encouraging users to contact their representative, previous reports have found that ByteDance ordered its U.S. branch to restrict videos in users’ TikTok feed that are on topics often censored in China such as Tiananmen Square, Tibet, and Falon Gong. There have been other reports of TikTok censoring content and manipulating the algorithm to not show “ugly” or “disabled” people, or criticisms on economic conditions in rural China.

Part of what makes TikTok “tick” is the passivity involved in interacting with the app. Users do not even have to scroll through a newsfeed; instead, the app feeds content without any prompting. Neurologically, the user can completely check out, passively consuming without thinking. This is fertile soil for propaganda–imbibing without thought.

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

Is TikTok a National Security Risk?