Still, it is unclear whether TikTok poses a unique and specific threat to US national security or if it is simply a convenient proxy through which lawmakers are grappling with larger issues of data security and privacy, disinformation, content moderation, and influence in a globalized tech market. Similarly, the Chinese telecom giant Huawei faced controversy over whether the US should incorporate Chinese-made hardware into domestic 5G infrastructure, which was ultimately banned.
“There are definitely signs that Chinese influence efforts are likely to grow, linked to the Chinese government’s strategy more broadly of digital authoritarianism,” says Kian Vesteinsson, a research analyst for the nonprofit digital rights think tank Freedom House. “But it’s important for us to acknowledge that the US government has its own shadowy national security surveillance authorities. And in recent years, US government agencies have monitored social media accounts of people coordinating protests in the US and done things like searched electronic devices throughout the country and at the border. These sorts of tactics undermine the idea that this is only a foreign threat.”
Then there’s the power imbalance TikTok may create. One thing about TikTok, in particular, is that its popularity and proliferation within the US could make it a one-stop shop for the Chinese government to mine the data of US users and launch influence operations in the US. Meanwhile, the US government may feel that it lacks a comparable mechanism through which it can so directly pull Chinese user data and work to sway public opinion in China.
“Let’s assume for a second that US intelligence has access to WeChat. They would have to fight hard for that access, and it would constantly be at risk of discovery and neutralization. China, on the other hand, doesn’t have to fight for access to TikTok; they have it by statutory authority,” says Jake Williams, director of cyber-threat intelligence at the security firm Scythe and a former National Security Agency hacker. “By itself, I don’t think that the TikTok app on people’s devices is a significant threat, but the potential for Chinese data collection across the platform is a larger concern, especially when combined with other data already acquired by Chinese state actors.”
Given its immense popularity, its ownership, and the fact that the bulk of TikTok activity is public by nature, there is no clear technical solution to boxing China out of the service. The question is whether the US government wants to devise a business solution or incentivize development of an appealing alternative platform. Still, privacy violations, security concerns, and foreign influence operations against US residents through social media are problems the US government has yet to solve. And neither technology bans nor countersurveillance will make them go away.
“One thing that we really should escalate here is that the US should be leading by example,” Freedom House’s Vesteinsson says. “When we talk about expanding the US government’s surveillance powers, that sets a really bad example for governments around the world.”