Does TikTok Really Pose a Risk to US National Security?

Over the past few weeks, as relations between the US and China sank to even lower lows, the social media app TikTok has emerged as a new target for the Trump administration. Both secretary of state Mike Pompeo and White House adviser Peter Navarro warned on Fox News that the US was considering outlawing Chinese apps, of which TikTok is the most popular, over security concerns. Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters Wednesday that there are “a number of administration officials who are looking at the national security risk as it relates to TikTok and other apps,” adding that action may come within weeks, not months.Concerns about TikTok have also spilled over into the corporate world. Last Friday, Wells Fargo said it had banned its workforce from using TikTok on company devices, an announcement that came after Amazon walked back a similar notice it sent to employees the same day. Meanwhile, on Twitter, venture capitalists, tech journalists, and China watchers have been intensely debating whether or not TikTok—one of several apps created by the Chinese tech giant ByteDance—poses as big a threat as government officials claim.
TikTok’s fiercest opponents argue that it should be viewed as a dangerous Trojan horse for Chinese Communist Party espionage . On the other side are those who frame that criticism as merely thinly-veiled xenophobia, a result of rising racism toward Chinese people and deteriorating relations between the US and Beijing. In between are plenty of people who aren’t quite sure what to believe. So far, like with Russian anti-virus firm Kaspersky a few years before, US officials have provided little evidence for their claims about TikTok aside from pointing to its country of origin. Absent hard proof, what’s left are more extrapolated dangers, like whether the Chinese government, which the US says was responsible for a notorious series of breaches at American institutions, would pilfer user data from TikTok, or censor content on the platform the way it tightly controls the internet within its own borders.Experts on China say that while those possibilities can’t be dismissed, blocking TikTok is a drastic measure, and one that wouldn’t necessarily solve every issue that concerns the app’s detractors. Outlawing TikTok would also mean the US would be participating in the same Chinese-style internet sovereignty tactics it has long criticized, and it’s not clear where the line might be drawn. While TikTok is likely the biggest, many other Chinese-owned apps are also used in the US, including Tencent’s WeChat . And then there are the worrisome implications of shutting down a platform tens of millions of Americans use for free expression, especially just months before a presidential election.
TikTok, for its part, has repeatedly said that the Chinese Communist Party wields no influence over its operations. The app is not available in China, though ByteDance runs a similar platform called Douyin there. The company stresses that it stores data on Americans users in the US and that none of it is subject to Chinese law. (TikTok’s Privacy Policy states, however, that it may share user data with a “parent, subsidiary, or other affiliate of our corporate group.”)TikTok has made efforts to be more transparent about its practices and to distance itself from Beijing, including pulling out of Hong Kong, where a sweeping national security law imposed by China went into effect last month. During the first three months of this year, ByteDance spent $300,000 on lobbying in Washington, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, where it hasn’t received a warm welcome from US lawmakers. Last fall, a number of senators raised security concerns about the app, and the Committee on Foreign Investment opened an investigation into ByteDance’s purchase of Musical.ly , a lip-syncing platform it later combined with TikTok. And in December, the Pentagon ordered military personnel to delete TikTok from their devices.