The Chinese owned social media platform TikTok has been downloaded over 2 billion times worldwide since its 2017 launch. Their catchy 15-20 second viral dance videos have grown tremendously in popularity during the global pandemic, but the threat that TikTok poses to national security is a trend that no one wants to catch on. Other than immediately deleting the app from your phones and computers, here’s what you need to know.
TikTok is owned by the China-based company ByteDance, which was founded in 2012 and is valued at $75 billion. They have an incorporation address in the Cayman Islands, a place known for tax loopholes and confidentiality. The PR push out of Beijing to promote TikTok as innocuous is that the CEO is an American former Disney Executive by the name of Kevin Mayer. Although offering the illusion of security, a Culver City, California based boss does not change the fact that ByteDance is headquartered in Beijing and is likely forced to share its data with the Chinese Communist Party. (Denying such a request would be the death of the company under the totalitarian grasp of Xi Jinping.)
This data sharing is so perilous that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States is “certainly looking at” banning TikTok. Such a restriction is not novel. On July 3, the Indian Government banned TikTok and 58 other apps with Chinese links for compromising users’ privacy and being used as spyware or malware. Additionally, both the U.S. Army and Navy have banned the use of TikTok by its soldiers, calling it a security threat.
The specific security issues plaguing TikTok range from censorship to data collection. TikTok has been accused of targeting and remove content that does not align with Chinese policies. Videos have disappeared when they address pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the mistreatment of Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region, or standoffs at the India-China border. Additionally, in an era of vitriolic political bipartisanship, senators from both sides of the aisle came together raising concerns that TikTok content could be deleted, added, or manipulated to influence U.S. elections.
As to data collection, TikTokhas been caught invasively abusing the clipboard by grabbing keyboard content every 1-3 keystrokes. According to research done by Forbes, “The most acute issue with this vulnerability is Apple’s universal clipboard functionality. . . If TikTok is active on your phone while you work, the app can basically read anything and everything you copy on another device: Passwords, work documents, sensitive emails, financial information. Anything.”
These potential security issues raise several concerns which can lead down a dark rabbit hole of questions: is the Chinese government building a dossier on each user, are they trying to steal banking data to wipe accounts, are they seeking personal medical information?
It should be noted that TikTok vehemently denies the accusations of spying or data theft. In response to Secretary Pompeo’s statements, TikTok issued the following remarks to Reuters News Agency:
“We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users. We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”
What’s peculiar that an extensive internet search finds no personal attribution to the comments. They do not appear to be issued by a specific employee, simply by TikTok. They praise their litany of worldwide employees and the aforementioned American CEO, yet they don’t feel the need to assuage the raised concerns by providing a name?
More concerning yet is that the Chinese Government is not known to be one of benevolence, transparency or honesty. Consider that there are currently hundreds of thousands, by some accounts even millions, being held captive in Chinese internment camps or that China steals billions of dollars worth of U.S. intellectual property each year. More disturbing still, China has been repeatedly accused of turning a blind eye to “forced” labor to produce cheap goods shipped all over the world.
These are atrocities that cannot be ignored but may not be ...