Is TikTok The Next Huawei? Why Some See a Video-Sharing App as a Threat to National Security

Lawmakers around the world have been scrutinizing TikTok over data privacy concerns and the company’s ties to the Chinese government. India has already banned the app and the United States may follow suit. Is the persecution of TikTok simply the latest development in the United States’ ongoing trade war with China? Or are the national security and data-privacy concerns legitimate?

TikTok is a video-sharing app that allows its users to edit, upload, and share 15-second video clips, which are then recommended to other users according to an algorithm that monitors their unique preferences. The app has undergone a surge in popularity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with downloads now exceeding two billion globally.

TikTok is an American company owned by its Chinese parent, ByteDance, which provides a similar service in China through the app “Douyin.” Under China’s National Intelligence Law passed in 2017, ByteDance would be obligated to accept any request from the Chinese government to have unfettered access to its user data and corporate networks for intelligence-gathering purposes. The popular video-sharing app has become the focus of an international political controversy as several governments have threatened action against TikTok, citing numerous cybersecurity threats and privacy concerns for its users. Although the company has categorically denied any allegations that it shares user data with the Chinese government, several global powers remain unconvinced.

India, who has been embroiled in an ongoing conflict with China in the Himalayas, banned the app on June 29th, along with 58 other Chinese-owned apps. According to a press release from the Indian government, the apps constitute “a threat to sovereignty” and are “hostile to national security.” Last Wednesday, the US Senate approved a ban that prevents federal employees from installing the app on government devices. The United States is also “certainly looking at” banning the app, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an interview with Fox News on July 6th. If the United States does decide to ban TikTok outright, the app would be placed on the same entity blacklist as another controversial Chinese conglomerate: Huawei. There is an obvious problem with equating the risks of Huawei with those posed by TikTok. Although neither case require a “smoking gun” to justify action, the threat posed by information gathering of this scale is far greater with Huawei, given their technology’s potential to gather more sensitive data from foreign governments. 

There have been a number of documented cyber risks and vulnerabilities associated with TikTok, ranging from simple coding flaws and scaling issues, to more serious vulnerabilities that would allow hackers to compromise a user’s account and disseminate their private information. Given that two thirds of TikTok’s American user base are in their teens or twenties the various cyber risks are especially pronounced, as those within this demographic typically do not have robust cybersecurity measures in place. However, it should be noted that the type of information that TikTok gathers from its users (name, email address, location, payment information, etc.) is largely the same as that which is collected by other platforms, such as Google or Facebook. Notably, if you turn to TikTok’s privacy policy you can see that the app “may share your information with a parent, subsidiary, or other affiliate of [their] corporate group.” Given this disclosure, one must consider whether or not the act of sharing user data with the Chinese government constitutes a legitimate national security threat.

Despite the various cyber risks to TikTok users, there is no evidence as of today to suggest that TikTok presents a risk to the national security of any nation. This, however, could change in the future. Given the relatively tumultuous nature of current western diplomacy with China, one could easily understand why China would want to manipulate the app in order to censor information, spread disinformation, or gather data on foreign citizens. However, these mechanisms of control are by no means limited to TikTok. Concerns over data privacy and other cyber risks are present in all social media platforms. Facebook’s questionable practices that involve the collection of user data and the spread of disinformation have become public knowledge. And yet, the notion of banning Facebook appears highly unlikely at present. 

It is entirely possible that the reason TikTok is being singled out in the discussion of data privacy and national security is because it is the only social media platform of global popularity that is owned by a Chinese company. The rise of China is a source of major concern for the rest of the world and for the United States in particular. China’s ability to project its soft power onto the entire world through TikTok has the potential to undermine America’s cultural influence globally. TikTok is keenly aware of this and has recently been trying to distance itself from China. The company has hired an American CEO, is actively searching for an international headquarters outside of China, maintains that its data is stored in servers located outside of China, and has repeatedly insisted that it is not influenced by the Chinese government. 

Regardless, TikTok cannot deny its parent ByteDance’s existence as a key surveillance tool for the CCP. This is the crux of TikTok’s current dilemma. Although it may be able to address the issues surrounding its cybersecurity, it will never be able to fully divorce itself from its relationship with the Chinese government. While TikTok maintains that it has never handed over user data to the CCP, the reality is that ByteDance would be forced to comply upon Beijing’s request for information.

It remains highly unlikely that the Trudeau government will choose to ban TikTok in Canada. Despite the app’s obvious data privacy concerns, experts argue an outright ban will do nothing to address these issues. The current fragility of Canada-China relations stemming from the extradition of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou suggests that the Canadian Government is not likely to do anything that could escalate its existing tensions with China.

Cover Image: TikTok’s Chinese connection continues to fuel international controversy, by Solen Feyissa via flikr.com. Creative Commons.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

About Alex Johnson

Alex Johnson currently serves as a program editor for the NATO Association of Canada. He is also pursuing his Masters degree in Global Affairs at the Munk School of Global Affairs, where he has written numerous research papers on Turkish defense policy. He has a BA in History from Queen’s University, where he focused on Russian history, colonial studies, and the history of migratory populations. Alex’s areas of interest include security issues, artificial intelligence, humanitarian blockchain, and global governance. He is currently working on a project designed to reduce the proliferation of small arms in conflict zones. Alex intends to pursue a career in global security after graduating in 2021 and can be reached at alex.ko.johnson@gmail.com on or LinkedIn.