Will the White House’s New Push to Limit Chinese Surveillance Technology Impact TikTok?

Could TikTok come under US Government scrutiny once again, and face another potential ban in the region?

As you’ll recall, last July, then US President Donald Trump pushed for a ban on the app, party due to concerns around the potential use of TikTok data for surveillance purposes, due to implied connection with the Chinese Government, and partly, Trump said, in retaliation against China for the spread of COVID-19.

Efforts to ban TikTok were repeatedly stalled by legal challenges, before eventually being abandoned by the new US administration – though not without noting that it would be looking to re-assess the app, and its data-gathering potential, at some stage.

Today, the US Government announced an expansion of the Trump administration’s ruling to prohibit US investments in Chinese companies, based on “the threat posed by the military-industrial complex of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)”.

As per the White House:

“President Biden [has] expanded the scope of this national emergency by finding that the use of Chinese surveillance technology outside the PRC, as well as the development or use of Chinese surveillance technology to facilitate repression or serious human rights abuses, constitute unusual and extraordinary threats.

That will see the US Government moving to restrict US investment and dealings with 59 Chinese-based entities, including Huawei, China Telecom Corporation, Greatwall, and more.

To be clear, neither TikTok nor parent company ByteDance are included in the list of impacted entities. But the expanded move to restrict dealings with Chinese companies, based on potential surveillance activity, could point to further scrutiny – particularly considering that TikTok recently added a new provision into its privacy policy which will allow it to collect user “biometric identifiers and biometric information”, including “faceprints and voiceprints”, via the app.

That could open up fresh concerns about the platform – the main sticking point being that under China’s cybersecurity law, any Chinese-owned company is technically required to supply all user information to the CCP, on request, if such a request is submitted. We have no insight, of course, as to whether any such request has ever, or will ever be put to TikTok or ByteDance, but the company has repeatedly reassured users that their data is safe, and that TikTok user information is stored outside of China and not accessible by the CCP.

But the concern remains, and with TikTok seemingly moving to gather up more user insights, and the US Government scrutinizing similar elements, it seems like the two could be moving towards another clash. 

But then again, “biometric identifiers and biometric information” are actually gathered by other social apps too. YouTube, seemingly, collects similar data, and Facebook has faced legal challenges in the past over its biometric data harvesting. So while it sounds bad, particularly given TikTok’s potential CCP linkage, it may not be as significant an update as it seems, up-front.

But it will likely be enough to get a few more Congress-folk looking its way once again, and if tensions continue to escalate between China and the US, with China likely to respond, in some way, to this latest round of restrictions, that could put TikTok under the spotlight once again.

Which could spark new discussions about a possible ban, or a possible sell-off, with Oracle and Microsoft maybe once again putting forth their bids.

It’s still too early to predict where any such actions might lead, but it is worth monitoring the situation, and the potential impacts for the world’s fastest-growing social app.  

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