What to Know About the TikTok Security Concerns

7 minute read

TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew faced an extensive grilling from U.S. lawmakers at a congressional hearing on Thursday, amid a new wave of concerns about the app’s ties to China and the security of U.S. citizens’ data.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing came after the Biden Administration indicated it may ban the app outright in the U.S. if its Chinese owner, Bytedance, refused to sell its stake in TikTok to an American company.

TikTok, which has 150 million users in the U.S. alone, has emerged as one of the most contentious elements in the U.S.’s deepening rivalry with China. The Biden Administration, along with lawmakers on both sides of the House and Senate, say they are concerned about the implications of Americans’ data being accessed by the Chinese state, which could present a national security risk. China’s national security law requires companies to turn over customer data if requested by Beijing.

Watch: TikTok CEO Testifies Before the House Energy and Commerce Committee

The controversy over TikTok is driving yet another wedge between the U.S. and China. Beijing said Thursday it would oppose any effort by Washington to force a sale of the app, suggesting that such a move could lead Chinese investors to retract their investments from the U.S. economy.

Ever since before the Trump Administration first threatened to ban TikTok in 2020, the company has denied accusations that it has close ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and that U.S. citizens’ data are at risk. It says it has since invested $1.5 billion dollars in a project to ensure sensitive user data is kept on U.S. soil, cannot be accessed from Beijing, and is subject to U.S. government audits. “TikTok has never shared, or received a request to share, U.S. user data with the Chinese government,” Shou said in written testimony ahead of Thursday’s hearing. “Nor would TikTok honor such a request if one were ever made.”

His efforts have done little to dispel concerns in Washington. While the congressional hearing on Thursday was reminiscent of earlier grillings on the hill of tech CEOs, with lawmakers often using props—large printouts or TikTok videos displayed on a big screen—to make their points, the unity of condemnation coming from both sides of the political aisle was remarkable. “We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values,” Cathy Rodgers, the Republican chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said. “TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation. Your platform should be banned.”

Here’s what to know about the debate over TikTok.

What is TikTok accused of?

The Biden Administration and the U.S. intelligence community are reportedly concerned about Americans’ data falling into Chinese hands because of the belief that this data could help China conduct influence operations aimed at the American public. TikTok’s demonstrable ability to amplify content directly to millions of users, including many children and teens, appears to have American officials worried that the Chinese state could compel TikTok to covertly influence the U.S. public.

Read More: Why the U.S. and Other Countries Want to Ban or Restrict TikTok

In 2019, the Guardian reported that TikTok had instructed its moderators to censor videos mentioning topics seen as controversial by the CCP, including the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and Tibetan independence. TikTok has said those guidelines are no longer in use, and in late 2022 videos of anti-government protests in China spread widely on the app.

“Our intelligence community has been very clear about China’s efforts and intention to mold the use of this technology using data in a worldview that is completely inconsistent with our own,” the U.S. deputy attorney general Lisa Monaco told the Wall Street Journal last month.

The director of the National Security Agency, Paul Nakasone, said earlier this month he was “concerned” about TikTok’s ability to influence the U.S. cultural conversation. “It’s not only the fact that you can influence something, but you can also turn off the message, as well, when you have such a large population of listeners,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

These fears have not only been stoked by politicians and the national security community, but also TikTok’s competitor Meta, which has sought to portray the platform as a danger to American children deserving of a ban, the Washington Post reported. Meta first launched Instagram Reels, a clone of TikTok, in 2020 when it appeared the Trump Administration may have been on the brink of banning the app.

Do the security concerns about TikTok hold water?

It’s impossible to say with certainty, because they are predictions about the future. But as well as there being little evidence (publicly available, at least,) that TikTok has engaged in narrative control on behalf of the CCP, there is also no evidence to show that TikTok has a clandestine connection to the Chinese state. “I’ve been trying for years to find any links to the Chinese state,” the journalist Chris Stokel-Walker, who has written a book about TikTok’s rise, wrote in BuzzFeed News this week. “I’ve spoken to scores of TikTok employees, past and present, in pursuit of such a connection. But I haven’t discovered it. I can’t say that link doesn’t exist … But none of us has found the smoking gun.”

Still, TikTok has a long list of very real privacy scandals under its belt. In December 2022, the company admitted that employees had spied on reporters using location data, in an attempt to track down the source of leaked information. Those employees were fired, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance said. TikTok also reportedly planned to surveil the locations of specific U.S. citizens using location data from their devices, Forbes reported last October.

Read More: TikTok Has Started Collecting Your ‘Faceprints’ and ‘Voiceprints.’ Here’s What It Could Do With Them

TikTok also engages in what some observers have called invasive tracking measures against ordinary users. These tactics include prompting users to let TikTok harvest their phone contacts lists, as a way of connecting users who already know each other on the app. Even if you refuse to give TikTok access to your contacts, it will still prompt you to follow people who have your number in their phone contacts lists.

But these growth-hacking measures are hardly any worse than what other homegrown social media companies like Meta do. And the systemic issue behind those more benign privacy violations isn’t TikTok’s relationship with China. It’s the fact that the U.S. has no comprehensive privacy legislation, allowing social media apps to operate in an effective Wild West when it comes to collecting and monetizing user data. “If you think the U.S. needs a TikTok ban and not a comprehensive privacy law regulating data brokers, you don’t care about privacy, you just hate that a Chinese company has built a dominant social media platform,” Eva Galperin, the director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote on Twitter.

“While Congress has been up in arms about TikTok, it has failed to pass even the most basic comprehensive privacy legislation to protect our data from being misused by all the tech companies that collect and mine it,” Julia Angwin, the founder of investigative tech news site The Markup, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece. “When you dig into the national security allegations against TikTok, it is telling that most of the charges could just as easily be levied against the U.S. tech giants.”

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Write to Billy Perrigo at billy.perrigo@time.com