The U.S. Government is currently considering a ban on certain Chinese social media apps, including the massively popular TikTok. And it’s totally not because the President got trolled by a bunch of teenagers who conspired to falsely RSVP to his comeback rally over the app. In an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham early Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated the United States was “very seriously” looking into banning the app, saying “With respect to Chinese apps on people’s cell phones, I can assure you the United States will get this one right too… I don’t want to get out in front of the President, but it’s something we’re looking at,” adding that American users of the app should only download TikTok if “you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”
According to CNN, while TikTok is owned by the Beijing-based startup ByteDance, the company has an American CEO and claims that data centers are located outside of China and therefore not subjected to Chinese law, and actively stores U.S. user data in the United States. In a statement following Pompeo’s remarks, a spokesperson restated that the company has “no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users.” Adding that the company has “never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”
The issue at stake
The ban consideration comes amid heightened tensions between the United States and China, as President Trump makes anti-Chinese sentiment a key part of his reelection campaign. The app and 58 others were recently banned in India as relations between the country and China have escalated, and now faces a loss of as much as $6 billion, according to Forbes. Another dent in revenue brought on by a potential U.S. ban might post massive problems for the app, which was downloaded an unprecedented 315 million times in the first three months of this year, according to analytics company Sensor Tower, and that doesn’t even account for the number of people who joined the app for the first time at the start of the country-wide lockdown in March.
What makes TikTok particularly concerning?
Social media apps collecting your data isn’t anything new. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat all collect your location data, internet address, browsing history, and can identify the type of device you’re using. TikTok can collect your phone and social-network contacts, GPS position, age, phone number, and any user-generated content you post, according to the Wall Street Journal, and tracks your watching habits to get a better understanding of how to personalize individual user experiences.
However, Chinese apps, in particular, tend to collect more data than they actually need, according to senior technology fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union, Jon Callas. This puts TikTok at a larger concern than American based apps as lawmakers and U.S. officials worry about the Chinese government’s mass data collection on American citizens.
Can This Actually Happen?
Absolutely. In his interview with Laura Ingraham, Pompeo pointed to precedent for such a ban in the FCC’s decision to designate the Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE as national security threats. According to the Wall Street Journal, the app has already been banned within the U.S. Military, and the House recently passed a bill that bans TSA officials from using the app. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission also slapped TikTok with a $6 million fine over the data collection practices of minors using Musical.ly, which was acquired by TikTok in 2017.
TikTok certainly wouldn’t be the first app under Chinese ownership to raise national security concerns. According to Tech Crunch, the popular dating app Grindr — which was acquired by the Chinese-based company Beijing Kunlun in 2016 — came under similar scrutiny after it was reported that while under Chinese ownership, engineers in Beijing were allowed to access the personal data of U.S. users, which included private messages and HIV status. When the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States told Beijing Kunlun that ownership of Grinder constitutes a national security threat, the Chinese company sold its 98% stake in the app.
TikTok is currently actively under a national security review by the federal government so if the app is revealed to be dangerously invasive, our days with the platform will be numbered.