Why is TikTok under attack from the US government?
The popular social media app TikTok is facing increased scrutiny as some government officials have declared it a security risk, and the Biden administration last week gave federal agencies 30 days to ensure TikTok is not on any federal devices or systems.
Scott White, an associate professor in the College of Professional Studies and director of the Cybersecurity Program and Cyber Academy at George Washington University, explained in an interview with GW Today why some believe TikTok poses a security risk and whether these fears are exaggerated.
White, who previously worked as an officer with the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command, said that while there are some reasons to be concerned about the app, there is also some political theater at play.
TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance, collects a lot of data about its users, White said. In addition to personally identifiable information (PII), such as names and dates of birth, the app also collects biometric data.
“I think the concern for the government is that they are collecting biometric identifiers. So the biometric identifiers that can be captured by TikTok are your voice pattern and your eyes,” White said. “Unlike other types of information that can be changed, when I capture your voice or capture a retinal scan, it cannot be changed. So that type of biometric identifier will remain linked to the individual over time.”
White said TikTok isn’t the only app collecting this kind of data, but the concern some government officials are raising is that its ownership is based in China. In China, White said, there are privacy and data collection laws that ultimately place the rights of the state above the individual.
“The National Intelligence Law, Article Seven, for example, requires all organizations to assist and cooperate with national intelligence efforts,” White said. “Tech companies have to comply with the national intelligence work done by the intelligence services. They have to. So that’s the fear. That all this information, whether it’s PII or biometric information, could theoretically be given to the intelligence service in China.”
He said the argument made by government officials who want to ban TikTok is that the app is an intelligence-gathering service for the Chinese government.
“Any single company that does business with China could theoretically have its information shared with the National Security Service of China,” White said.
While these factors are legitimate concerns, White said, it’s important to note that many other apps collect similar data about their users.
“Facebook, Instagram, Tinder, Grinder, Uber — they all collect PII information about their customers, too,” White said.
He added that people may argue that these apps collect user information mainly for business and marketing purposes, but these companies can be and have been hacked.
“And when they get hacked, that information is automatically exposed,” White said. “So, I think, you know, we want to be careful and understand the security risks. But if we’re going to talk about security, let’s be realistic and talk real security across the board. A lot of companies are collecting large amounts of data on American citizens . TikTok is just a simple target.”
He said the average phone has dozens of apps that collect user data and monitor a person’s location throughout the day.
Earlier this week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted in favor of a bill that could give the president the power to ban TikTok entirely. White said that if TikTok were ever to be banned in the United States, he would expect a lot of backlash.
“You’re talking about regulating or banning a social media platform, which is an information sharing platform for many. That would be seen as undemocratic because there is a free flow of ideas and information,” White said. “Whether that would stand up to a constitutional challenge, I don’t know.”
Another argument against TikTok is that the algorithm pushes harmful content to users.
“Well, I want to go back to Facebook. These algorithms are designed to meet certain needs of a company. So whether it’s drawing you, a user, into a politically damaging dialogue on Facebook or directing you toward a different marketing strategy, “There’s a lot of psychology that goes into the development of applications and the algorithms that run. I think young people, people in general, need to be aware of these things,” White said.
He believes that an important step is for everyone to be better educated about cyber security so that they can become better consumers of technology.
“Technology is going to be with us. It’s only going to get more powerful,” White said. “I think the issue for me is not banning the technology or banning the application. It’s educating people about what the technology is and how it can be harmful to you.”