TikTok is having its Huawei moment. The social network, buoyed by a surge in popularity during lockdown, has found itself at the centre of an international political row with a number of countries threatening action against the app. Its future may be under threat as claims about its security circulate.
In recent weeks, governments have rallied against the app as its parent company ByteDance is based in China and subject to the country’s strict intelligence and security laws. Officials in India have banned the app – as well as 58 other Chinese-owned apps – after its soldiers were involved in deadly clashes with Chinese troops in the Himalayas. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo raised the stakes by announcing the country is also “looking at” banning apps from Chinese companies – the most prominent of these being TikTok.
The banned apps are “hostile to national security” and “pose a threat to sovereignty,” the Indian government claimed in a press release. Pompeo said that people should only download the app if they “want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.” TikTok has strongly denied these claims with officials saying it has never handed the Chinese government user data and it would refuse to do so if were asked.
“Is TikTok a national security threat or is it another punchbag in the middle of the US-China trade war?” says Tim Stevens, a lecturer in global security at King’s College London. “Potentially both.”
At present there has been no concrete evidence publicly presented by TikTok’s critics that show it is a risk to national security, Stevens says. There’s no smoking gun. The US started a national security review of the app in November 2019 following concerns raised by Congress, but details of its findings have yet to be published. Both the US and Australian militaries have blocked soldiers from using the app. And Amazon has told all its staff to delete the app from their phones due to “security risks”.
TikTok is keen, internationally, to distance itself from China: it has an American CEO and is mulling over an international headquarters. The app has different features to its Chinese counterpart DouYin. And as China imposed its National Security Law on Hong Kong, TikTok said it would stop operating in the region. “We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government; TikTok does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future,” TikTok said back in October 2019.
The majority of the TikTok concern is based around the company behind it, ByteDance, which is based in Beijing, and how it follows China’s rules and interacts with the Communist Party. US officials have expressed concerns about China being able to amass large amounts of data about US citizens through TikTok.
Home-grown firms in China often have close ties with the state and all businesses including foreign ones – just ask Apple and Google – have to operate by Beijing’s rules. Since 2014, China has introduced a number of laws around national security, cybersecurity and how the online world must operate. In June 2017, China’s broad National Intelligence Law handed officials extra powers over companies, individuals and the data they produce.
“The legal and political reality in China is that even if these companies would want to pushback against government requests it’d be very difficult, if not impossible, for them to do so or would carry severe implications for their companies and even for the executives personally,” says Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst for China with nonpartisan NGO Freedom House.
ByteDance has previously fallen foul of China’s strict regime. Officials ordered the company to suspend its Jinri Toutiao news app and social media platform Neihan Duanzi in April 2018 after regulators said some news stories and jokes displayed were “opposed to morality” and “off-colour”. Company CEO Zhang Yiming issued an apology. “The product has gone astray, posting content that goes against socialist core values,” he wrote in a message shared on Weibo. “It’s all on me. I accept all the punishment since it failed to direct public opinion in the right way”.
There have been criticisms of censorship on TikTok itself. The Guardian has reported it has instructed moderators to “censor videos” that mention topics considered to be controversial in China: for instance Tiananmen Square and Tibetan independence. The company responded by saying it had taken a “blunt approach to minimising conflict” and had since changed its moderation policies. The number of political videos on TikTok has since risen.
So should you be worried about TikTok? Cybersecurity experts have previously found serious vulnerabilities within the app – although any app can suffer from coding flaws, which aren’t designed to be malicious. Oded Vanunu, the head of product vulnerability research a security firm Check Point, which as previously found flaws in TikTok, says the app is well built and the company quickly fixed the problems when they were raised. “Things become more complex cybersecurity-wise once you need to support two billion users,” Vanunu says. “For hacking groups, every vulnerability in TikTok potentially can open them to hundreds of millions users’ data. Is TikTok ready for this challenge?”
The company says that US user data is not stored in China and is backed up in Singapore. “Our data centres are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law,” the company says in a statement. “Further, we have a dedicated technical team focused on adhering to robust cybersecurity policies, and data privacy and security practices.”
TikTok does have the legal ability to send data to China though and it’s not clear to what extent information could be shared. “TikTok has not satisfactorily answered questions about how it collects, transfers and stores data,” says Samantha Hoffman a China analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. She argues that TikTok hasn’t fully responded to questions about information sharing with China. “Storing data in servers in Singapore it does not mean that employees [based in China] are not accessing that data. They also don’t say their data is not sent back to China.”
Ultimately, TikTok’s connections to China will continue to cause it trouble. “The parallels to Huawei are obvious and difficult to refute,” Stevens says. For several years Huawei’s links to the Chinese government have caused the company problems and resulted in its technology being banned by a number of countries – most prominently the US, which has an ongoing trade battle with China. As with TikTok, no smoking gun has been found – or at least shared publicly – to say that Huawei acts on behalf of the Chinese government or provides it with any data.
Both companies are subject to politicking. “This is what you do now. If you have a geopolitcal dispute with a neighbour or peer competition you ban their tech companies,” Stevens says, adding that countries may increasingly look to restrict well-known social media services because they’re the ones most people use and talk about. It may not be the best way to conduct international diplomacy though. “Why fight about TikTok when perhaps you should be fighting about values?” Stevens says.
Matt Burgess is WIRED’s deputy digital editor. He tweets from @mattburgess1
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