Why TikTok’s security risks continue to raise fears

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TikTok is once again defending itself against claims that its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, would share user data from its popular video-sharing app with the Chinese government, or push propaganda and misinformation on its behalf.

China’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday accused the United States itself of spreading disinformation about TikTok’s potential security risks following a report in the Wall Street Journal that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, part of the Treasury Department, was threatening to ban the app in the US unless its Chinese owners get rid of their stake.

So, are the data security risks real? And should users worry about the TikTok app being deleted from their phones?

Here’s what you should know:


Both the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission have warned that ByteDance could share TikTok user data, such as browsing history, location, and biometric identifiers, with China’s authoritarian government.

A law implemented by China in 2017 requires companies to provide the government with any personal data relevant to the country’s national security. There is no evidence that TikTok has handed over such data, but fears abound due to the vast amount of user data it collects, much like other social media companies.

Concerns about TikTok rose in December when ByteDance said it fired four employees who accessed data from two journalists for Buzzfeed News and The Financial Times while trying to trace the source of a leaked report on the company.


White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby declined to comment when asked on Thursday to address the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s comments on TikTok, citing the review by the Committee on Foreign Investment.

Kirby also could not confirm that the administration sent TikTok a letter warning that the US government may ban the app if its Chinese owners do not sell their stake, but added: “We have legitimate national security concerns regarding the integrity of the data we should look at.”

In 2020, then-President Donald Trump and his administration tried to force ByteDance to sell its US assets and ban TikTok from app stores. The courts blocked the effort, and President Joe Biden rescinded Trump’s orders but ordered an in-depth study of the matter. A planned sale of TikTok’s US assets was also shelved as the Biden administration negotiated a deal with TikTok that would address some of the national security concerns.

On Capitol Hill, US Senators Richard Blumenthal and Jerry Moran, both Democrats and Republicans, wrote a letter in February to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urging the Foreign Investment Committee panel, which she chairs, to “quickly conclude its investigation and impose strict structural measures”. restrictions” between the US operations of TikTok and ByteDance, including the possible separation of the companies.

At the same time, lawmakers introduced measures that would expand the Biden administration’s authority to enact a nationwide ban on TikTok. The White House has already backed a Senate proposal that has bipartisan support.


On Thursday, British authorities said they are banning TikTok on government-issued phones for security reasons, following similar moves by the European Union’s executive branch, which temporarily banned TikTok on employee phones. Denmark and Canada have also announced efforts to block it on government-issued phones.

Last month, the White House said it would give US federal agencies 30 days to remove TikTok from all government-issued mobile devices. Congress, the US military, and more than half of US states had already banned the app.


TikTok spokeswoman Maureen Shanahan said the company was already responding to security concerns through “transparent US-based protection of US user data and systems, with strong monitoring, investigation and verification of third parties”.

In June, TikTok said it would route all US user data to servers controlled by Oracle, the Silicon Valley company it chose as its 2020 US technology partner in an effort to avoid a ban on TikTok. Nacional level. But it is storing backup copies of the data on its own servers in the US and Singapore. The company said it expects to delete US user data from its own servers, but hasn’t provided a timeline for when that would happen.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will testify next week before the House Committee on Commerce and Energy about the company’s privacy and data security practices, as well as its relationship with the Chinese government.

Meanwhile, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has been trying to position itself more as an international company, and less like a Chinese company that was founded in Beijing in 2012 by its current CEO, Liang Rubo, and others.

Theo Bertram, TikTok’s vice president of policy in Europe, said in a tweet on Thursday that ByteDance is “not a Chinese company.” Bertram said his ownership consists of 60% global investors, 20% employees and 20% founders. Its leaders are based in cities like Singapore, New York, Beijing, and other metropolitan areas.


It depends on who you ask.

Some tech privacy advocates say that while the Chinese government’s potential abuse of privacy is concerning, other tech companies have data-collection business practices that also exploit user information.

“If lawmakers want to protect Americans from surveillance, they should advocate for a basic privacy law that prohibits all companies from collecting so much sensitive data about us in the first place, instead of engaging in what amounts to a xenophobic display that it does exactly nothing to protect anybody,” said Evan Greer, director of the nonprofit advocacy group Fight for the Future.

Karim Farhat, a researcher with the Internet Governance Project at Georgia Tech, said a sale of TikTok would be “completely irrelevant to any of the alleged ‘national security’ threats” and would go against “all free market principles and norms.” from the state department internet. principles of freedom.

Others say there is a legitimate reason to worry.

People who use TikTok may think they’re not doing anything that’s in the interest of a foreign government, but that’s not always the case, said Anton Dahbura, executive director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Important information about the United States is not strictly limited to nuclear power plants or military installations; it extends to other sectors, such as food processing, the financial industry and universities, Dahbura said.


Last year, the US banned the sale of communications equipment made by Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE, citing national security risks. But banning the sale of items might be easier than banning an app accessed over the web.

Such a move could also go to court on the grounds that it might violate the First Amendment, as some civil liberties groups have argued.

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