By CHHS Extern Peter Scheffel
National security and privacy concerns have grown with the advent of the internet and the subsequent shift to online-embedded life. Today, a functioning member of society enjoys arguably all of life’s necessary societal connections in a format digitally connected through hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cable and continent-spanning servers. To the average U.S. citizen, finances, education, entertainment, consumer habits, and much more have a close linkage with the digital world.
Recently, the social media app TikTok has been under discussion in Congress due to both privacy and national security concerns directed at TikTok’s connections to China, and the ongoing geopolitical tensions currently escalating between the U.S. and China. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company based in Beijing, though allegations assert TikTok and ByteDance as being functionally the same company, sharing chat applications, data analysis mechanisms, and managerial contact. Given the growth in geopolitical tension between the U.S. and China, questions have been raised as to the amount of data TikTok collects and to what extent Chinese authorities have channels with which to access TikTok’s U.S. data. While such privacy and national security concerns have merit, especially considering the lack of transparency in what TikTok data China has access to and the risk of algorithm manipulation China could be utilizing for U.S. users, an outright ban of TikTok in the U.S. would be a mistake.
Given the speed with which legislation has been drawn up to potentially ban TikTok, what concerns are being discussed? Privacy and national security concerns grew further in early March of 2023, after Senator Josh Hawley sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen seeking review of whistleblower allegations which had been brought to Senator Hawley. These allegations included Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members being able to toggle between U.S. and Chinese TikTok data with ease despite the supposed separation between U.S. and Chinese TikTok. This includes alleged access to U.S. citizen user data and most concerning: personal location. Other allegations detailed China-based employees being able to access U.S. data with simple managerial approval and that TikTok continues to maintain near constant contact with ByteDance, the China-based parent company. Other possible abuses the CCP could engage in using U.S. TikTok user data include increasing cyberespionage and hacking efforts based on the accessed data, especially with the data’s potential to benefit social engineering attacks (a cyber-attack chiefly built around how people think and behave, manipulating human error to gain access), which are often incredibly successful if prior intelligence has been gathered on the target. Also, psychological manipulation via algorithm bias, as TikTok has not shared how its algorithm functions leading to allegations the algorithm is biased in reinforcing/influencing negative content on America’s population.
Government cybersecurity officials share in the growing concern surrounding TikTok, with a focus on national security. Rob Joyce, who leads the U.S. National Security Agency’s cybersecurity division, has likened TikTok to a “Trojan Horse” which carries long term security concerns years into the future given the questions surrounding CCP access to and manipulation of data on the 150 million U.S. TikTok users. In 2022 four ByteDance employees were discovered to have accessed U.S. reporters’ data which has led to Department of Justice investigations into journalist surveillance by ByteDance. Though the employees were later fired, the fact that such surveillance took place has increased the pressure for Congress to act by banning or forcing the sale of TikTok in the United States. TikTok’s CEO Zi Chew did recently testify before Congress, but his testimony only further escalated the concern and the feeling around Congress that something ought to be done. On one occasion, Chew replied to a question on if ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company had spied on Americans at the behest of the CCP by stating that “I don’t think ‘spying’ is the right way to describe it.” Chew was also unable to definitively make a commitment TikTok would not sell data or if any data is currently being sold, responding “I can get back to you on the details.” On if TikTok would commit to not focus on targeting people under the age of 17, Chew replied that “It’s something we can look into and get back to you.”
Counter arguments include that TikTok is no different than other large social media apps in terms of “risk” of data being used or sold. While some truth may exist in this argument, such an argument does not differentiate between the U.S. based companies and TikTok. Of particular concern are the Chinese laws which enable the CCP to compel companies based in Beijing like TikTok, to share data. And even without the legal ability, given the rising competitive technological atmosphere between China and the U.S., it would not be surprising for the CCP to utilize coercion against ByteDance to access TikTok user data. This highlights the main difference in the comparison argument: China is a rival in many respects due to ongoing economic and national security tensions. Thus, unlike Instagram or Facebook, TikTok’s data, whether or not purposefully, carries a higher risk of problematic use simply due to its potential connection to the CCP. China is more adversary than ally in terms of national security currently. Now, such national security concerns have led to action, with the U.S. banning TikTok on government devices. But while this covers national security to an extent, further calls for banning of the app overall is a mistake for reasons beyond the argument that it collects data like U.S. social media companies.
To pursue an outright ban would be ill-advised. Even assuming such a ban would overcome already established legal concerns addressed during the Trump Administration’s failed attempts; it would set a new concerning precedent on government control over technology and what information, speech, and communication means Americans have access to in the name of “privacy” as defined and controlled by Congress. Banning TikTok is a drastic response to concerns that while real, lack sufficient corroboration to warrant such an extreme remedy. Principles matter in times of tension and peace, and the United States ought not mimic China’s policies to ban foreign apps (YouTube, WhatsApp) in order to punish and compete against China. While some have argued that this is precisely what needs to happen; sacrificing the idea of an open internet (as China has), in order to control and punish countries as well as control what and how a populace communicates; this is not a strong enough answer to overcome the dangers in broadening the ability of the U.S. government to control what technology its citizens can communicate with. This response of banning TikTok, even if never carried out, is a clear reminder of how a hastened legislative response to combat foreign powers can quicken the pace to adopt the very ideals such legislation would be drawn up to defeat. As James Madison penned in a 1798 letter: “Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions agst. [against] danger real or pretended from abroad.”