When TikTok Meets the Catch-All Concept of National Security
by Shasha Lin
TikTok, a video-sharing app launched in the fall of 2017, is the first Chinese social media platform to achieve major success in the U.S., especially among teens and members of ‘Gen Z’1 (Collier 2020). By June 2020, a few months after stay-at-home orders were implemented across the U.S. due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the total number of TikTok’s active monthly users in the U.S. had skyrocketed to more than 91 million, an increase of 52 million compared to October 2019 (Sherman 2020). This popular entertainment app allows 50 million daily active U.S. users to create and share 3- to 15-second videos of themselves dancing, singing, lip-syncing, capturing animal antics, and playing hilarious pranks (Sherman 2020). Innocuous as TikTok seems to many of its users (McCabe 2020), concerns about the app have been growing amid its soaring popularity. The controversy surrounding TikTok revolves around two national security concerns pointed out by the Trump Administration. American authorities voiced their concerns about Beijing’s possible access to U.S. user data and TikTok’s alleged censorship of content considered politically sensitive by Chinese authorities. Yet, despite some justified concerns over TikTok’s data security and content moderation practices, it seems possible that TikTok as a popular entertainment platform – similar to its American counterparts – has been caught in the crossfire of an escalating tit-for-tat trade war between the U.S. and China.
Before Donald Trump signed the the Executive Order of August 6, 2020, the so-called “TikTok ban,” there had been a debate over the extent to which TikTok poses genuine risks to U.S. national security. Back in January 2019, Claudia Biancotti, senior economist and visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, raised concerns about Beijing’s possible access to the location data of young military service members, many of whom posted videos of themselves doing exercises in uniform in military facilities. Could it be seen as sensitive information in the hands of a foreign power? In late October 2019, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas sent a letter to acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, depicting TikTok as “a potential counterintelligence threat.” They called for “an assessment of the national security risks posed by TikTok.” In response to this, in early November 2019, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS)2 launched a national security review of TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company ByteDance, which did not seek clearance from CFIUS when it acquired the short video-sharing app Musical.ly3 in November 2017 and later merged it into TikTok (Roumeliotis et al. 2019). In seemingly another response to these security concerns, the U.S. military received a message from the Pentagon about a “potential risk associated with using the TikTok app” in December 2019, and thereafter many military branches banned TikTok from military-issued smartphones (Vigdor 2020).
Government scrutiny increased as TikTok saw “exponential growth” during the Covid-19 pandemic (Sensor Tower 2020). In July 2020, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that the Trump Administration might restrict TikTok’s operation in the U.S., warning U.S. users of their private information ending up “in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party” (Creitz 2020). It was not until early August 2020 that the Trump Administration officially declared TikTok a threat to “the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States” (Trump 2020).
National Security Concern I: Beijing’s Access to U.S. User Data
To reassure the U.S. government, TikTok has implemented a series of measures to mitigate the national security risks (Huang and Madnick 2020). Specifically, it stores U.S. user data separately in California with a backup in Singapore. In addition, headquartered in Culver City, California, TikTok has a U.S.-based team with an American CEO for its operation in the U.S (Huang and Madnick 2020), although Kevin Mayer stepped down in late August 2020 on the grounds that “the political environment has sharply changed” (Isaac 2020). Soon after his resignation, Vanessa Pappas, TikTok’s first General Manager for the U.S. and YouTube’s former Global Head of Creative Insights, was appointed as TikTok’s interim global head (Heath 2019; Isaac and Lorenz 2020). Besides a U.S -based management team, TikTok invites outside experts to its Transparency Center in Los Angeles to directly observe, review, and provide feedback on its data security and content moderation practices (Pappas 2020a). Despite its claims of being committed to protecting user data, “TikTok can’t shake an air of suspicion that surrounds it in the United States” (Broderick 2019).
After all, TikTok has been subject to a range of controversies, including allegations of illegal transfers of user data and security flaws. In December 2019, TikTok faced a class-action lawsuit filed by a California college student, who accused TikTok of illegally transferring her private user data to servers in China (Paul 2019). Although Reuters reported that “legal documents did not provide evidence of the data transfers” (Paul 2019), this lawsuit fueled the controversy over TikTok’s data security practices. In January 2020, the Israeli cybersecurity company Check Point Research announced that they found multiple vulnerabilities within the TikTok application, which could have allowed attackers to extract users’ personal information and manipulate their content (Boxiner et al. 2020). Although TikTok fixed them later, this alarming technical report deepened data privacy and security concerns surrounding TikTok.
Although other social media and tech companies have also faced scrutiny over data privacy issues (Diaz 2020), these high-profile incidents have added to the concerns about TikTok. Yet, what concerns U.S. policymakers the most is Chinese ownership of the platform, specifically that ByteDance, subject to China’s national security law, will allow the Chinese government to access its U.S. user data (Roose 2020). The Trump Administration was thus worried that the Chinese government might misuse and exploit such data for “blackmail” and “espionage” purposes (Trump 2020). Zak Doffman (2020), an expert on cyber-surveillance, adds that “the most cogent national security argument against TikTok is that user feeds and actions might [emphasis by author] be analyzed and manipulated to influence their behavior” and public opinion. These seem legitimate concerns about a popular and fast-growing app that collects a considerable amount of data from U.S. users (Roose 2020; Sacks 2020).
In response to data security allegations, TikTok has repeatedly stated that it has never turned over U.S. user data to the Chinese government and that it will push back against government demands for data, as other Chinese tech companies have done in the past (Schuman 2020). Moreover, District Judge Wendy Beetlestone (2020) describes in a ruling that the Trump Administration’s descriptions of national security risks posed by TikTok “are phrased in the hypothetical” (24). In other words, the Trump Administration’s arguments against TikTok seemed to be based on the theoretical possibility of ByteDance being forced by the Chinese government to hand over U.S. user data but not on actual evidence.
National Security Concern II: Alleged Censorship
Another national security concern about TikTok is that ByteDance, subject to China’s censorship law, could be used by Beijing as a censorship and propaganda machine. President Trump (2020) made his concern very clear in the 2020 executive order, stating that
“TikTok also reportedly censors content that the Chinese Communist Party deems politically sensitive, such as content concerning protests in Hong Kong and China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. This mobile application may [emphasis by author] also be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party, such as when TikTok videos spread debunked conspiracy theories about the origins of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.”
Concerns about censorship on TikTok did not come out of nowhere. The Washington Post reported that discussions of the Hong Kong protests “barely exist on TikTok” (Harwell and Romm 2019). The Guardian subsequently revealed leaked internal documents detailing TikTok’s content moderation guidelines (Hern 2019). It found that on TikTok, there was a general ban of “criticism/attack towards policies, social rules of any country, such as constitutional monarchy, monarchy, parliamentary system, separation of powers, socialism system, etc.” (Hern 2019). Although TikTok (2019) told The Guardian that “The old guidelines in question are outdated and no longer in use” (Hern 2019), the disconcerting revelation fueled suspicion of political content being censored on TikTok. In mid-October 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed in a speech at Georgetown University that TikTok, its rising rival, had censored Hong Kong protest content and represented a threat to freedom of speech (Feuer 2019). On November 27, 2019, TikTok came under sharp scrutiny again. A U.S. teenager’s TikTok account (@getmefamouspartthree) was blocked after she posted a viral video about the Uighur community in China (Lee 2019). Later in the day, TikTok apologized to her for the “human moderation error” and allowed her to post the video again (Han 2019). The user is currently using another TikTok account (@ferozaaziz) to critically talk about the treatment of the Uighur community in China and such controversial videos are still available by the time of writing this article.
Regarding alleged censorship, TikTok has repeatedly denied claims that it censors content “based on sensitivities related to China,” stating in the fall of 2019 that “Our US moderation team, which is led out of California, reviews content for adherence to our US policies – just like other US companies in our space. We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government; TikTok does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future.” To test TikTok’s claim, BuzzFeed News (Broderick 2019) talked to three TikTok users in the U.S. and found that their content related to Hong Kong protests was not removed. BuzzFeed News also set up a TikTok account (@dimsum852) and uploaded two videos of police firing rounds of tear gas at protesters in Hong Kong.
After an 11-week investigation, BuzzFeed News found that their Hong Kong-related political content was neither removed from the platform nor shadow banned, which means its content visibility was not restricted by TikTok (Broderick 2019). Samm Sacks (2020), a leading expert on U.S. – China relations and cybersecurity policy fellow at the American think tank New America, commented on BuzzFeed News’s investigation, stating that “more of this kind of assessment with specific examples would be helpful” to test claims of censorship on TikTok.
To reassure the U.S. government and U.S. users, TikTok has repeatedly updated its community guides and content moderation policies. For instance, to combat misinformation, disinformation, and election interference on the platform, TikTok released its new community guides ahead of the 2020 U.S. election, one day before Trump’s announcement of the TikTok ban (Pappas 2020b). Imperfect as its content moderation practices may be, TikTok is not the only social media platform in the U.S. that confronts the issues of disinformation and misinformation. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube all have been battling the same issues (Ghaffary and Heilweil 2020).
The TikTok Ban and National Security Concerns: Context Matters
Given TikTok’s growing influence in the U.S. and its imperfect data security and content moderation practices, there are legitimate concerns about TikTok’s operation in the U.S. However, the national security risks posed by TikTok are described by the U.S. government in mostly hypothetical terms and in the future tense. So far, it has not been conclusively proven what access Beijing has to U.S. user data or to which extent Beijing could order TikTok to censor content and promote disinformation campaigns. However, we may understand Trump’s ill-fated attempt to ban TikTok by putting it into context. In view of the rising geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China during the Trump Administration, the TikTok ban is the much anticipated, if not inevitable, outcome of an escalating tit-for-tat trade war between the two economic superpowers.
After all, TikTok is not the first Chinese app to be caught in the U.S. – China tussle during the Trump Administration. For instance, over national security concerns, CFIUS ordered Chinese gaming company Kunlun to sell Grindr, a popular dating and social app for the LGBTQ+ community (Yang and Fontanella-Khan 2020). Besides the sale of Grindr and the TikTok ban, Trump signed two other executive orders on the same grounds to ban applications and software developed or controlled by Chinese companies, including WeChat, Alipay, CamScanner, QQ Wallet, SHAREit, Tencent QQ, VMate, WeChat Pay, and WPS Office (Hartmans 2021). These bans were part of the Trump Administration’s extensive efforts to build “the Clean Network” (Pompeo 2020). On August 5, 2020, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the launch of five new lines of efforts to “build a Clean fortress” around U.S. citizens’ data, so as to guard sensitive information “from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).” One of its efforts is to remove untrusted applications or, more specifically, “PRC [People’s Republic of China] apps” from U.S. mobile app stores, for they “threaten our privacy, proliferate viruses, and spread propaganda and disinformation.” China is the only foreign power that is directly targeted and repeatedly mentioned in the press statement. It is described as the “CCP’s surveillance state,” a malign actor, and a foreign adversary (Pompeo 2020).
On the Chinese side, similar bans and accusations against the U.S. can also be found. In early February 2021, Clubhouse, a drop-in audio chat app launched in April 2020, was added to the list of U.S. social media apps blocked in Mainland China, which already includes Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter4 (Chien and Qin 2021). On September 1, 2020, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying commented that Pompeo’s accusations were “lies” and that “in reality, the US is the one that is adept at turning apps into surveillance units.” On December 23, 2020, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian described the U.S. as “a real empire of hacking and theft.” In addition to rebuking the U.S., China updated laws and initiatives in response to Trump’s TikTok ban and “the Clean Network” initiative. On August 28, 2020, China updated its export control laws to restrict exports of national security-sensitive technologies, including TikTok’s source code and algorithms (Lei 2020). U.S. commentators deemed it to be Beijing’s move to slow down any deal of American companies acquiring TikTok’s operation in the U.S. (Mozur et al. 2020). On September 8, 2020, China’s Foreign Ministry launched a Global Initiative on Data Security, aiming to address “the mounting risks of data security” and “politicization of security issues.” Although this initiative does not directly target the U.S. government, U.S. commentators consider it a retaliation against “the Clean Network” initiative (Ray 2020; Hamilton 2020). Considering the tit-for-tat escalation between the U.S. and China during the Trump Administration, it is not far-fetched to conclude that TikTok was caught in the crossfire of a U.S. – China tech war under the Trump Administration5.
Whatever the merits of Trump’s attempt to ban TikTok, TikTok’s operation in the U.S. is more of a politicalized issue amid growing geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China as played out, for example, in the escalating trade war under the Trump Administration. Following the defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, the future of TikTok fell into the hands of the Biden Administration, which has so far taken a circumspect approach to it. On February 10, 2021, the Biden Administration filed an opposed motion, stating that it would review whether the prohibitions regarding TikTok are warranted. With the new Biden Administration taking on such a controversial issue as the TikTok ban, it will be intriguing to see what comes next in this battle over the entertainment platform. Although TikTok is only one part of the ongoing conflict between the U.S. and China, its future could set the tone for the United States’ approach to national security concerns in the realm of technology.
1. Generation Z refers to users born after 1996.↩
2. CFIUS is the US government body that reviews foreign investments for national security threats. Martin Chorzempa (2020), senior research staff at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, analyzes why the probe into TikTok’s acquisition of Musical.ly is “a defining moment” for CFIUS, in addition to his elaboration on the functions and operations of CFIUS. ↩
3. Musical.ly, launched in August 2014, was a Chinese social media platform where users could create and share short lip-sync videos. On November 9, 2017, ByteDance acquired Musical.ly. On August 2, 2018, Musical.ly was merged into TikTok. ↩
4. “After the Urumqi riots in July 2009, the Chinese government not only blocked Twitter and Facebook but also shut down most domestic microblogging services” such as Sino Weibo (Qin et al. 2017, 120). Qin et al (2017) document 13.2 billion blog posts on the Chinese microblogging platform Sino Weibo during the 2009-2013 period and found “a shockingly large number of posts on highly sensitive topics” on Weibo (118). ↩
5. Greg Austin, Senior Fellow for Cyber Space and Future Conflict at the American think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies, elaborates on “twists and turns of Trump’s tech war” in a 2020 article. ↩
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Header Image: https://unsplash.com/photos/i7xNLAWRl2I by Charles Deluvio
About the author
Shasha Lin is a doctoral researcher at the HCA’s graduate training center “Authority and Trust” (GKAT). Her project focuses on how trust in fair admissions influences the perception of affirmative action in higher education among three large Asian American groups, namely Chinese, Filipino, and Vietnamese Americans. She is interested in diversity and racial/ethnic issues in the U.S., especially within the Asian American community. She can be reached via Twitter @Shashalin6.