It's wild that Western governments have decided that TikTok might spy for China. The app hasn't helped itself.
- More Western governments have banned TikTok from official devices.
- That's a pretty overt indication they think the app spies for China.
Some of the most powerful Western governments have more or less decided that TikTok spies on people.
It's hard to conclude anything else after the US, the EU, Canada, the UK, Belgium, France, and the Czech Republic have either mandated or advised officials to delete the app from their phones, all in the space of four months.
The suspicion is that TikTok's owner ByteDance is in cahoots with the Chinese Communist Party and shares data about Western users with China. China has fewer safeguards around personal data. It also has a history of corporate and political espionage on the West.
The US, where TikTok has more than 100 million active users, has banned the app from government devices since last November. The Biden administration is now pushing for a full ban if the app doesn't sell or divest any Chinese stakes.
The UK and New Zealand, key security partners for the US in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, have decided to up the ante on TikTok too this week by also banning the app from government devices. France is weighing up a similar move.
There's more than just spying fears. The app is a stand-in for poor relations with China and, to a lesser degree, a fear that Chinese tech may supersede Western tech.
"TikTok is the unlucky lightning rod for the geopolitical tension at the moment," said Ben Greenstone, managing director at public policy consultancy Taso Advisory and a former UK government official.
And the app hasn't helped itself.
Drip-drip revelations suggest TikTok isn't totally kosher
There's been a steady flow of damning stories about TikTok and its ultimate parent firm ByteDance, which is headquartered in Beijing.
ByteDance hasn't precisely detailed its ownership but, according to the Financial Times, is owned by a mix of global investors, while 20% is owned by employees, and another 20% by founders Zhang Yiming and Liang Rubo.
This week, an anonymous former risk manager at TikTok said that information about the app's millions of American users still could be exposed to China, despite internal efforts to wall off US user data, the Washington Post reported. The data-safeguarding plan, known as Project Texas, is costing TikTok $1.5 billion and involves hiving off US data in Oracle servers with government oversight. But, the person said, TikTok would need to be totally re-engineered to be fully leakproof, the Post reported. (A TikTok spokesperson said anyone who left when this employee did wouldn't be fully briefed on Project Texas.)
In 2021, "TikTok Boom" author and journalist Chris Stokel-Walker outlined in Insider that TikTok does transfer European and American data to China, though not necessarily in a wholesale fashion. One source told the author that data from a small number of Western users that could identify them made its way onto an internal-messaging system at ByteDance.
In December, TikTok admitted that some ByteDance staff in the US and China gained access to personal data of journalists in a bid to monitor their location and expose company leaks. A spokesperson said four employees who accessed the data had been fired, CNN reported at the time.
TikTok has maintained the app doesn't spy on individuals, and has pointed to the steps it's taking to hive off user information.
Theo Bertram, TikTok's vice president for public policy in Europe, tweeted on Thursday that the app does not "collect any more data than other apps."
—Theo Bertram (@theobertram) March 16, 2023
FCC commissioner Brendan Carr responded to Bertram asking if "any member of the CCP accessed non-public US or EU user data from inside China." Bertram is yet to respond.
Western powers are skeptical of TikTok's defense
In the US, deputy attorney general Lisa Monaco has pointed to a national security law in China that requires companies to make data available to the government as a clear reason not to use an app owned by a company headquartered in China.
"If a company is operating in China and is collecting your data, it's a good bet that the Chinese government is accessing it," she said during a panel discussion last month.
British lawmaker Oliver Dowden, meanwhile, said "the security of sensitive government information must come first" when outlining the reasons for the UK's ban. New Zealand's reasoning has been more vague, with politicians told that "the risks are not acceptable" after the government conducted its own analysis and discussions.
"TikTok has burned a lot of trust by dragging its heels on promises made in 2020 and due to the string of revelations about its aggressive harvesting of user data," Jamie MacEwan, senior media analyst at Enders Analysis, told Insider.
Some of the accusations being leveled at TikTok apply, to some extent, to any social-media platform. US social-media services normalized the aggressive harvesting of user data, and routinely hand over information to international governments.
But at a broader level, Taso's Greenstone notes, a ban is a useful tool for Western powers to say they're "fighting back against China's dominance,'' especially as the US will be aware its global dominance is genuinely challenged by a rising China.
If lawmakers remain skeptical about TikTok's safeguarding of user data, or the app fails to find a buyer in a pinch — its viability in its most popular markets looks increasingly slim.
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