- Multiple U.S. government entities have raised concerns about TikTok’s data security and privacy practices, to the point of discussing a ban on TikTok for U.S. users.
- ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) has had a history of lawsuits over privacy issues.
- The Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) has been in talks with TikTok to resolve security concerns.
TikTok is a fast-rising star on the social media scene, with over 1 billion active users around the globe in 2021. Though its parent company, ByteDance, is based in China, TikTok has around 86.9 million users in the United States, and the app has quickly become an integral part of American culture.
Despite its popularity, two U.S. presidents and multiple government bodies have expressed concerns over TikTok’s data practices and lack of security. And lately, there has been buzz about a complete TikTok ban in the United States.
This is not the first time ByteDance has faced a ban on its social media platform, but rather the most recent in a long line of lawsuits, investigations, and problems that have plagued TikTok’s operations in the U.S. Let’s dive into why TikTok’s security is controversial as well as how likely a ban on TikTok really is.
What is TikTok?
Unless you’ve been in a serious digital detox for the past several years, you’ve seen short-form videos from TikTok all over the internet. TikTok is a social media platform that allows users to create short videos to share with friends and, for some influencers, the internet at large.
Its popularity has exploded since the start of the pandemic, especially among people in their teens and 20s who comprise more than half of the user base. While many people use TikTok to watch funny pranks or record their own version of the latest dance craze, growing concerns over the app’s data privacy and international security have drawn scrutiny from the U.S. government.
Are these concerns justified, or is TikTok no more compromising than Facebook or Twitter when it comes to your personal data? Let’s take a look at the events leading up to TikTok’s current precarious position in the United States.
History Behind TikTok Ban
On August 6, 2020, President Trump first attempted to ban TikTok in the U.S. with an executive order outlawing transactions between ByteDance and U.S. citizens. He cited national security concerns. He backtracked 8 days later with another executive order giving ByteDance 90 days split off its U.S. TikTok business or sell it to an American firm. ByteDance engaged in discussions to sell TikTok to Microsoft, Oracle, and Walmart, but nothing materialized. A series of lawsuits by ByteDance and TikTok influencers ensued, which effectively staved off a ban.
In June 2021, President Biden revoked Trump’s executive order, but began an investigation into the security threats TikTok might pose. By June 2022, buzz had resurfaced about backdoor access to U.S. user data by employees in China. Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr sent an open letter to Apple and Google calling for them to remove TikTok from their stores due to “surreptitious data practices.”
Part of the reason for the stalled investigations and actions by U.S. institutions is the opposing factors at play — the answer to how free speech on the American internet plays out when hosted by a Chinese app raises issues of foreign trade policy, political ideology, international data security, and much more.
The implications go far beyond TikTok. The decisions the government makes regarding regulations or a ban placed on this teen-fueled short-form video app could set a precedent for how other juggernauts like Facebook and YouTube are dealt with legally and politically for years to come.
For now, the questions surrounding security and privacy remain as TikTok continues to assert that user data is safely stored in Oracle cloud servers in the U.S. But other recent reports based on leaked audio from internal TikTok meetings have suggested China can access the data anyway.
What are TikTok’s security problems?
TikTok, for their part, has moved American users’ data away from Chinese servers to Virginia, with a backup in Singapore; though the question of whether employees in China (and hence, the Chinese Communist Party) can still access U.S. user data remains unanswered.
TikTok’s relocation of American data and commitment to “robust cybersecurity policies” have not allayed all of the United States’ security concerns. U.S. Senators Josh Hawley and Rick Scott claimed in a press release that ByteDance has members of the Chinese Communist Party on its board. They further suggested the app cannot legally refuse Beijing’s requests for the data it collects, some of which it gathers even when users don’t have the app open.
While these charges haven’t led to a categorical ban on the app, they have led several government agencies to ban the use of TikTok on government phones. These agencies include the State Department, Department of Defense, TSA, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. military, and the Pentagon. However, it’s worth noting that other categories of apps, such as fitness apps, are also banned by the military as they track location data. Some technical experts question whether TikTok is just a convenient foreign scapegoat on the issue of data privacy, as giants like Meta and Snapchat have also come under legal fire for questionable privacy and data practices.
Another issue that’s been raised is TikTok’s questionable practices with its young user base. In 2019, two parents filed a class action lawsuit against ByteDance for collecting data on children under 13 without parental consent. The company agreed to a $92 million settlement.
Even before the attack on Capitol Hill in January 2021 (and the many lawsuits against social media platforms that ensued after), TikTok had banned all political advertising, though the fact they had made it easier for them to skirt the issue of campaign misinformation after the attack. But they might not get off that easy, as their algorithm to keep politics off the platform appears to be patchy at best. In a report by Fortune, TikTok let through 90% of fake political ads despite the ban on that type of advertising. This begs the question of what organizations can use — or misuse — the loopholes in TikTok’s algorithm to influence political outcomes.
How likely is a ban on TikTok in the U.S.?
While an all-out ban on TikTok in the U.S. is possible (it’s already happened in India), a lot of water would have to go under the bridge for it to happen anytime soon.
Aside from disallowing the app on government phones, the federal government has done little thus far to regulate TikTok, let alone ban it for all U.S. users. Congress has yet to create overarching federal data privacy laws (the American Data Privacy and Protection Act has been proposed as a bill, though not yet passed), and it’s hard to regulate data security or privacy with laws that don’t yet exist.
The Biden administration’s investigation is ongoing, and results have yet to be reported. The Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) is still in talks with TikTok to try to create a security deal; talks are ongoing as the U.S. and China do a delicate dance to balance their own ideas about regulating content and data with profitability and autonomy.
Regardless of whether TikTok is dangerous for the average user, this situation raises crucial questions about regulating data privacy, security, and digital trade in an increasingly interconnected and global economy. TikTok’s parent company is still in the process of negotiating a deal with the CFIUS that will satisfy national security concerns and allow TikTok to continue operating in the United States.
In reality, until there is clear evidence of ByteDance misusing American user data — and the federal government enacts laws to prevent companies from doing so — TikTok is unlikely to be banned in the U.S.
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