What the hell is wrong with TikTok?
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Western governments are ticked off with TikTok. The Chinese-owned app loved by teenagers around the world is facing allegations of facilitating espionage, failing to protect personal data, and even of corrupting young minds.
Governments in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and across Europe have moved to ban the use of TikTok on officials’ phones in recent months. If hawks get their way, the app could face further restrictions. The White House has demanded that ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, sell the app or face an outright ban in the U.S.
But do the allegations stack up? Security officials have given few details about why they are moving against TikTok. That may be due to sensitivity around matters of national security, or it may simply indicate that there’s not much substance behind the bluster.
TikTok’s Chief Executive Officer Shou Zi Chew will be questioned in the U.S. Congress on Thursday and can expect politicians from all sides of the spectrum to probe him on TikTok’s dangers. Here are some of the themes they may pick up on:
1. Chinese access to TikTok data
Perhaps the most pressing concern is around the Chinese government’s potential access to troves of data from TikTok’s millions of users.
Western security officials have warned that ByteDance could be subject to China’s national security legislation, particularly the 2017 National Security Law that requires Chinese companies to “support, assist and cooperate” with national intelligence efforts. This law is a blank check for Chinese spy agencies, they say.
TikTok’s user data could also be accessed by the company’s hundreds of Chinese engineers and operations staff, any one of whom could be working for the state, Western officials say. In December 2022, some ByteDance employees in China and the U.S. targeted journalists at Western media outlets using the app (and were later fired).
EU institutions banned their staff from having TikTok on their work phones last month. An internal email sent to staff of the European Data Protection Supervisor, seen by POLITICO, said the move aimed “to reduce the exposure of the Commission from cyberattacks because this application is collecting so much data on mobile devices that could be used to stage an attack on the Commission.”
And the Irish Data Protection Commission, TikTok’s lead privacy regulator in the EU, is set to decide in the next few months if the company unlawfully transferred European users’ data to China.
Skeptics of the security argument say that the Chinese government could simply buy troves of user data from little-regulated brokers. American social media companies like Twitter have had their own problems preserving users’ data from the prying eyes of foreign governments, they note.
TikTok says it has never given data to the Chinese government and would decline if asked to do so. Strictly speaking, ByteDance is incorporated in the Cayman Islands, which TikTok argues would shield it from legal obligations to assist Chinese agencies. ByteDance is owned 20 percent by its founders and Chinese investors, 60 percent by global investors, and 20 percent by employees.
The company has unveiled two separate plans to safeguard data. In the U.S., Project Texas is a $1.5 billion plan to build a wall between the U.S. subsidiary and its Chinese owners. The €1.2 billion European version, named Project Clover, would move most of TikTok’s European data onto servers in Europe.
Nevertheless, TikTok’s chief European lobbyist Theo Bertram also said in March that it would be “practically extremely difficult” to completely stop European data from going to China.
2. A way in for Chinese spies
If Chinese agencies can’t access TikTok’s data legally, they can just go in through the back door, Western officials allege. China’s cyber-spies are among the best in the world, and their job will be made easier if datasets or digital infrastructure are housed in their home territory.
Dutch intelligence agencies have advised government officials to uninstall apps from countries waging an “offensive cyber program” against the Netherlands — including China, but also Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Critics of the cyber espionage argument refer to a 2021 study by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which found that the app did not exhibit the “overtly malicious behavior” that would be expected of spyware. Still, the director of the lab said researchers lacked information on what happens to TikTok data held in China.
TikTok’s Project Texas and Project Clover include steps to assuage fears of cyber espionage, as well as legal data access. The EU plan would give a European security provider (still to be determined) the power to audit cybersecurity policies and data controls, and to restrict access to some employees. Bertram said this provider could speak with European security agencies and regulators “without us [TikTok] being involved, to give confidence that there’s nothing to hide.”
Bertram also said the company was looking to hire more engineers outside China.
3. Privacy rights
Critics of TikTok have accused the app of mass data collection, particularly in the U.S., where there are no general federal privacy rights for citizens.
In jurisdictions that do have strict privacy laws, TikTok faces widespread allegations of failing to comply with them.
The company is being investigated in Ireland, the U.K. and Canada over its handling of underage users’ data. Watchdogs in the Netherlands, Italy and France have also investigated its privacy practices around personalized advertising and for failing to limit children’s access to its platform.
TikTok has denied accusations leveled in some of the reports and argued that U.S. tech companies are collecting the same large amount of data. Meta, Amazon and others have also been given large fines for violating Europeans’ privacy.
4. Psychological operations
Perhaps the most serious accusation, and certainly the most legally novel one, is that TikTok is part of an all-encompassing Chinese civilizational struggle against the West. Its role: to spread disinformation and stultifying content in young Western minds, sowing division and apathy.
Earlier this month, the director of the U.S. National Security Agency warned that Chinese control of TikTok’s algorithm could allow the government to carry out influence operations among Western populations. TikTok says it has around 300 million active users in Europe and the U.S. The app ranked as the most downloaded in 2022.
Reports emerged in 2019 suggesting that TikTok was censoring pro-LGBTQ content and videos mentioning Tiananmen Square. ByteDance has also been accused of pushing inane time-wasting videos to Western children, in contrast to the wholesome educational content served on its Chinese app Douyin.
Besides accusations of deliberate “influence operations,” TikTok has also been criticized for failing to protect children from addiction to its app, dangerous viral challenges, and disinformation. The French regulator said last week that the app was still in the “very early stages” of content moderation. TikTok’s Italian headquarters was raided this week by the consumer protection regulator with the help of Italian law enforcement to investigate how the company protects children from viral challenges.
Researchers at Citizen Lab said that TikTok doesn’t enforce obvious censorship. Other critics of this argument have pointed out that Western-owned platforms have also been manipulated by foreign countries, such as Russia’s campaign on Facebook to influence the 2016 U.S. elections.
TikTok says it has adapted its content moderation since 2019 and regularly releases a transparency report about what it removes. The company has also touted a “transparency center” that opened in the U.S. in July 2020 and one in Ireland in 2022. It has also said it will comply with new EU content moderation rules, the Digital Services Act, which will request that platforms give access to regulators and researchers to their algorithms and data.
Additional reporting by Laura Kayali in Paris, Sue Allan in Ottawa, Brendan Bordelon in Washington, D.C., and Josh Sisco in San Francisco.