How TikTok became a national security issue for the United States

A person holding a smartphone while the TikTok logo is displayed behind (REUTERS/Dado Ruvic) (Dado Ruvic/)

Depending on who you ask, the short video platform TikTok is a showcase for silly dances and makeup tutorials or a sophisticated threat to the national security of the United States. Since TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance, and since China requires its companies to share any national security-related data requested of them with the government, TikTok’s popularity among Americans has implications that go beyond the mobile phone screen. This adds to concerns from parents, educators and mental health experts about whether TikTok content and its addictive nature are unhealthy for young minds.

What differentiates TikTok from other social networks?

A ByteDance logo in its office in Beijing, China (REUTERS/Thomas Suen)
A ByteDance logo at its office in Beijing, China (REUTERS/Thomas Suen) (THOMAS SUEN/)

All social media platforms collect user data. But TikTok is considered the most advanced, and incredibly effective, when it comes to knowing your interests, based on how long you stay on a video and whether you like it, forward it or comment on it.. This allows its algorithm to offer more items of interest in what it calls the “For You” feed. The resulting flow of diverse but personalized content can be so intoxicating that it’s hard to stop scrolling. Two-thirds of American teenagers use TikTok every day, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey, and 16% say they are on the platform almost constantly.

What are the biggest concerns about TikTok?

National security concerns involve hypothetical but not implausible scenarios in which The Chinese government uses its influence over ByteDance to turn TikTok into an instrument of damage against US intereststhrough channels such as:

Data collection: In addition to what you seem to be interested in, TikTok learns your computer’s IP address and, if you allow it, your exact location and who is in your contact list. TikTok’s critics say that information could be used to profile certain Americans and subject them to blackmail.

Social networks are designed so that users stay on them, without thinking about the mental health consequences.  (Unsplash)
Social networks are designed so that users stay on them (Unsplash)

Espionage. A 2020 executive order from then-President Donald Trump addressed the possibility that China could use TikTok data to “track the location of federal employees and contractors” and to “conduct corporate espionage.”

Influence operations. U.S. national security officials are concerned that TikTok may try to shape American public opinion by strategically suppressing or promoting certain videos. One official called the app a “Trojan horse” through which China could manipulate American thinking.

Is there evidence to support these concerns?

In December, the CEOs of ByteDance and TikTok admitted that ByteDance employees had improperly accessed the IP addresses of American users, including journalists writing critical articles about the company. The Justice Department was investigating whether that amounted to improper surveillance of Americans.

What does the company say?

The TikTok logo outside the company's headquarters in California (REUTERS/Mike Blake)
The TikTok logo outside the company’s headquarters in California (REUTERS/Mike Blake) (Mike Blake/)

“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” TikTok CEO Shou Chew told a US congressional panel investigating the company in March. TikTok notes that Chew is headquartered in Singapore, with the company’s COO in the US and its global head of trust and safety in Ireland. According to Chew, TikTok poses no greater risks than American video-sharing apps such as Instagram and YouTube. In an attempt to allay concerns, TikTok said that sensitive data of US users was being moved to servers controlled by Oracle, based in Austin, Texas, and that TikTok’s source code would be made available to third parties for review. revision. This initiative, called Project Texas, was underway in May. It didn’t seem like he was going to change Washington’s mind.

What are the other concerns about TikTok?

Like most platforms, TikTok supports users as young as 13 years old. There are concerns about how much time young people spend watching videos and whether the content undermines their self-esteem, for example by distorting their sense of body image. Parental control software maker Qustodio analyzed 400,000 family accounts for TechCrunch and found that American teens and children spent an average of 99 minutes a day on TikTok in 2021, compared to 61 minutes on YouTube. In 2023, an EU regulatory body fined the company €345 million ($368 million) for alleged deficiencies in the care of children’s personal data. (The company said it disagreed with the decision, which was made under the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation, GDPR.) Additionally, some viral TikTok trends have proven dangerous. One particularly notorious one, called the blackout challenge, was linked to the deaths of at least 20 children under the age of 15 in a span of 18 months.

What measures have been taken against TikTok?

A person touches the TikTok logo on a smartphone (Photo: Marijan Murat/DPA)
A person touches the TikTok logo on a smartphone (Photo: Marijan Murat/DPA) (Marijan Murat/Deutsche Presse-Ag/)

For national security reasons, India banned the use of TikTok and dozens of other applications developed by Chinese companies in 2020. The United States has banned the downloading or use of TikTok on federal government devices; The United Kingdom, Canada, Belgium and Taiwan have enacted similar bans. A US state, Montana, even enacted a law prohibiting the downloading of TikTok by the general public starting in 2024; TikTok quickly challenged the law on free speech grounds. A 2020 Trump executive order would have effectively banned TikTok in the United States, but it stalled in court. President Joe Biden’s administration has pushed for TikTok to become independent from ByteDance or face a US ban.

Can the United States ban an app?

There are no direct precedents for prohibiting free consumer technology in the US. It is rather something that would happen in China, which has banned Facebook since 2009. If the US ban survives legal challenges, the government could try to force app store operators to remove TikTok from their menu of offers. That would be an obstacle for people to become new users of TikTok. More difficult would be to find a way to prevent current users from continuing to access the service.