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Don’t let the media and social media influencers fool you – China’s TikTok is still a national security threat. While the company may be out of the national headlines now that the Biden administration has taken over (make of that what you will), it’s clear that there is more to the Chinese social media company than meets the eye. Yes, on one hand, you could call TikTok simply the latest viral social media platform specializing in short-form videos. But on the other hand, it’s clear that there are legitimate national security concerns about any foreign social media platform that seems so intent on collecting all of our data so quickly.
TikTok and the data collection problem
Once you download the TikTok app on your phone, it begins to hoover up all the data on your phone, ranging from profile information to phone contacts. And it doesn’t stop there – the more time you spend on the platform, the more data that TikTok can collect on your online habits, your behavioral patterns, and even what sorts of content gets you to click most often. All of that data can then be shipped off to Beijing for further analysis and, quite possibly, future surveillance. What if Beijing finds out that a U.S. citizen has been sparking anti-China conversations online? What if the Communist Party finds out that it can track known anti-government protesters?
TikTok and the censorship problem
You can think of this data collection and state surveillance problem as being the most obvious threat. But also consider how TikTok can influence the debate on certain topics (e.g. Hong Kong or Taiwan), or how TikTok can completely censor or otherwise manipulate content that it finds objectionable to the Chinese Communist Party. For example, think back to when the NBA was playing games in China in 2019 and there was a brief outcry over NBA players and coaches supporting protesters in Hong Kong. As you remember, the NBA quickly backed down and superstar LeBron James even came to the defense of China. That’s the type of sometimes subtle content manipulation that can take place when a foreign social media platform has so much power and influence.
TikTok and the national security threat
Finally, there’s the national security threat. During the peak of the TikTok controversy in 2020, opponents of President Trump often referred to the “flimsiest of national security concerns” as the pretext for Chinese company ByteDance having to sell off its U.S.-based TikTok assets to an American buyer like Oracle or Walmart. But we live in an era when data matters more than ever, and any data being collected, stored, analyzed and tracked overseas can represent a real national security threat. For example, Chinese military officials might not be able to track precise U.S. troop or ship movements, but if they have access to GPS data from mobile phones, they can get precise, pinpoint locations of U.S. army and naval personnel. For that reason, it’s now verboten to use TikTok within the armed services.
Policies need to be in place
It’s clear, then, that policies need to be in place. There has to be a standard of care and safety, since TikTok is just the beginning. After all, globalization does not apply to just real-world products and physical goods – it also applies to intellectual property and digital assets. At some level, society needs to recognize that adversaries can penetrate our borders by penetrating our digital devices. And so it’s up to government to come up with a workable solution that both promotes free and fair competition, while also ensuring that we are not knowingly inviting a potential national security threat onto American soil.