August 18, 2020

IntelBrief: Is TikTok’s Possible Farewell Really Related to National Security?

This Feb. 25, 2020, photo shows the icon for TikTok taken in New York. (AP Photo, File)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The U.S.-China dispute has extended into social media with President Trump’s recent issuance of a new executive order that targets the popular app TikTok.
  • The timing of the executive order is overtly political and protectionist, but TikTok, like many other social media companies, does harvest users’ personal information.
  • Despite the Trump administration’s claims to the contrary, TikTok is unlikely to represent a significant threat to U.S. national security.
  • The proliferation of disinformation and possible Chinese government influence over content moderation decisions are the most prevailing concerns regarding TikTok. 

In early August, President Trump issued an Executive Order designed to curb the growing social media influence of TikTok, a company owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, known for providing users of the application an ability to design pithy, meme-infused videos. While the Trump order justifies the action against TikTok based on national security concerns, there is little evidence that the application represents a clear and present danger to U.S. national security interests. The executive action, which goes into effect 45 days from August 6, not only results in a U.S. ban of the video-sharing mobile application but will also prohibit transactions involving U.S. persons and TikTok. The new action against TikTok also comes during a time when Microsoft was enmeshed in negotiations to purchase TikTok and, as such, provides potential important leverage in acquisition-related talks. A U.S. ban of TikTok, which has been downloaded more than 175 million times in the United States, would have a significant impact on ByteDance’s earnings, since TikTok generates most of its revenue through advertisements. The U.S.-China tech war also comes amidst Facebook’s August 5 announcement of Instagram Reels – an application that allows users to create ‘short entertaining’ videos.

While the timing and motivations of Trump’s TikTok executive order reek of politics and protectionism, especially during a looming election where the President’s primary foreign policy talking point is his ability to curb growing Chinese global influence, TikTok has reportedly broken U.S. federal laws. In 2019, federal regulators claim that TikTok violated children’s online privacy laws by collecting names, email addresses, videos, and other personal information of children younger than 13 without parental consent. TikTok’s missteps resulted in a negotiated settlement between the U.S. government and TikTok. Additionally, not unlike other social media applications, including those owned by U.S.-based companies, TikTok collects information about its users, including, but not limited to, geo-locational data, phone contact lists, and access to other mobile applications. Exploiting this data, which users freely allow when they opt into the app’s privacy policies, is fundamental to the success of social media companies, including Facebook, which harvests these same details to help tailor advertising on their platforms. In this way, TikTok is no more or less of a threat to personal privacy than the legions of U.S.-based technology companies already playing by these same rules.

Nearly three years ago, ByteDance purchased the U.S. company, and in 2018 eventually folded it into TikTok, creating a single mobile video platform. At the time of acquisition, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an interagency committee that reviews foreign investment and transactions to determine national security concerns, did not review the ByteDance purchase. However, in late 2019, national press outlets explained that CFIUS was conducting a retroactive review of the ByteDance purchase. Yet, at the time of the recent Trump executive order, CFIUS had yet to complete its review. In any case, the recent order could have more impact than any CFIUS-related determination. The lack of determination, however, could be telling. It is entirely possible that CFIUS has been unable to detect any immediate national security threat emanating from TikTok. Others, however, have speculated that if requested, TikTok could hand over sensitive personally identifiable information to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance. Responding to those concerns, TikTok claimed that it would deny such requests and explained that TikTok user information is inaccessible to Chinese authorities because it is stored in the United States and Singapore. Given the demographics of TikTok’s users, 41% are between the ages of 16 and 24, it seems that sensitive information is unlikely to be exposed to Beijing even if ByteDance forces TikTok’s hand. 

Currently, TikTok’s most pressing flaws are its uneven content moderation efforts of its users - flaws that afflict Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. TikTok users made the infamous 2016 right-wing PizzaGate conspiracy theory go viral again this past summer. In late 2019 and into 2020, reports circulated that TikTok content moderators felt pressured to remove videos associated with the protests in Hong Kong. The spread of disinformation, like the PizzaGate conspiracy, coupled with possible Chinese government censorship of TikTok videos are important data points. Still, TikTok was quick to take content moderation action against the spread of the conspiracies on its platform by blocking users from using hashtags associated with PizzaGate. Another challenge, China’s growing projected influence over TikTok, is likely moot now due to the new executive order. Whether the Chinese government could have significantly impacted U.S. national security through TikTok is far less clear, although it seems rather unlikely.