By Jessica Zhu
Since its international release in 2017, TikTok has gained immense traction in the United States, with an estimated 65 to 80 million users nationwide. Its parent company, ByteDance, is based in China — a fact that has led some to question its potential ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
As tensions between the United States and China rise, President Donald Trump has warned that Chinese-owned social media app TikTok may be mining users’ personal data. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other lawmakers have raised similar concerns, alleging that the app could be legally forced to disclose users’ personal data to the Chinese government, constituting a threat to American cybersecurity. After threatening a national ban on the widely popular platform, President Trump softened his stance, giving companies like Microsoft a month to purchase TikTok’s U.S. operations. However, the app’s future in America remains uncertain.
Stanford experts, while unsure that the potential ban would offer significant protection from Chinese cyber threats, note that it serves as a reminder of the escalating battle between the two powerful countries.
Andrew Grotto, director of the program on Geopolitics, Technology, and Governance at the Freeman Spogli Institute’s (FSI) Cyber Policy Center and former senior director for cybersecurity policy in both the Obama and Trump Administrations, echoed Secretary Pompeo’s warning that TikTok could be weaponized by the Chinese Communist Party to mine American users’ personal information.
“Chinese law grants the Chinese government virtually limitless power to compel companies to comply with government orders, “ Grotto wrote in a statement to The Daily. “If the Chinese government decided that mining a company’s data was in the state’s interests, it would force the company to cooperate and the company would have few, if any, recourse to resist.”
In contrast, some experts do not consider TikTok’s data mining to be a significant threat. These include Thomas Fingar, a fellow at FSI’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, who maintains that TikTok does not pose a national security risk.
“The ‘sensitive data’ vulnerable to collection via apps like TikTok is limited to personal data posted voluntarily by users,” Fingar wrote in a statement to The Daily. “Protecting the personal data of users is important but not usually considered a national security vulnerability.”
According to Fingar, since virtually all social media platforms gather the same information on their users, TikTok does not pose a risk unique from other Internet sites.
“The intersection of conventional national security and personal information security occurs when government employees or contractors with sensitive jobs and security clearances have personal data that can be exploited for blackmail or other purposes to persuade them to violate their obligations to protect national security information,” he said. “To the extent that this is a threat, it is one that applies to any apps that collect and store personal information, not only to TikTok.”
Others agree with Fingar. Technology columnist for the Washington Post Geoffrey Fowler wrote that “TikTok doesn’t appear to grab any more personal information than Facebook. That’s still an appalling amount of data to mine about the lives of Americans.”
“But there’s scant evidence that TikTok is sharing our data with China, and we should be wary of xenophobia dressed up as privacy concerns,” he added.
Even if TikTok does threaten American cybersecurity, Grotto expressed skepticism that a national ban would significantly safeguard personal data.
“It would result in some margin of additional security, though it’s not at all clear how significant a margin it would be, and thus whether an outright ban is an appropriately proportionate response to the risk,” he said.
President Trump’s authority to impose a ban in the first place has also been questioned. While he told reporters aboard Air Force One that he could use emergency economic powers or an executive order, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) voiced concerns about government overreach.
“Banning an app like TikTok, even if it were legal, threatens our freedom of speech and doesn’t fix the broader issue of surveillance,” the legal advocacy organization wrote in a tweet.
A potential Tik Tok ban, while not a defining moment in the conflict between the United States and China, is indicative of a worsening relationship between the two, noted Fingar.
“It would be one more straw on the camel’s back,” he said. “By itself, it would not do much to hurt the relationship, but the Chinese government and social media will highlight and exaggerate it as one more bit of evidence of malign U.S. government intent and unwarranted efforts to ‘contain’ China.”
“It would also fuel the narrative gaining traction in the U.S., thanks in large part to the Trump administration, that anything associated with China is ‘bad’ or threatening,” he added.
Grotto confirms that this adversarial political trend will continue to play a huge role in American foreign policy: “It is a reminder of how wide the gulf has grown. American policy makers from across the political spectrum are fundamentally rethinking the U.S. relationship with China.”
“The process began in the last year or so of the Obama administration, accelerated under Trump, and will be a defining challenge for the next President, whether Trump or Biden,” he added.
Contact Jessica Zhu at jesszhu ‘at’ stanford.edu.