January 23, 2023
Allowing TikTok to operate in the United States is one of the greatest national cybersecurity failures of our lifetime. This application, which has ties to the Chinese Communist Party, has skyrocketed in popularity and has become one of America’s most used social media applications boasting over 140 million active users over eighteen years old.
After multiple scandals surrounding user data and dubious business practices involving the Chinese Communist Party, why is it that America continues to let the Chinese government spy on Americans and steal their data? With the available evidence revealing the threat that TikTok poses, the decision is simple. TikTok’s U.S. operation must be sold to an American corporation. If that fails, it must be totally banned from operating in the U.S. to safeguard the data of millions of Americans.
It is no secret that TikTok misuses its users’ data. A Forbes report from October outlined how the company was planning on monitoring the location of certain U.S. users without their knowledge unrelated to targeted advertising. The work was to be conducted by an internal audit team headed by a Beijing-based executive. ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) claims that access to Americans’ data is not accessible by employees in China, but a member of this internal audit team said that “it is impossible to keep data that should not be stored in [China] from being retained in CN-based servers.” Forbes was able to confirm these fears after learning that ByteDance conducted an internal investigation that revealed employees had improperly used data to track the location of Forbes’ journalists in order to identify leakers.
Americans aren’t the only ones who should be concerned about data privacy when using TikTok. In November of last year, the company announced that it would be allowing China-based workers to access the data, including location, of app users in the European Union. The announcement came with a paltry justification revolving around “transparency,” but it is more likely a test of the West’s resolve. Will European and other Western countries follow America’s footsteps by falling asleep at the wheel while its citizens’ data is blatantly harvested?
Ultimately, TikTok is de facto subservient to the Chinese Communist Party, as its parent company ByteDance is headquartered in Beijing. It is foolish to even consider that data being consumed by an app operated by ByteDance is not controlled and viewed in some capacity by America’s preeminent global adversary.
Thankfully, the tide is turning against TikTok. The recently passed omnibus bill included a provision banning the installation of TikTok on any federally issued devices. This development arrived after a successful Senate vote to ban the app from government devices and public condemnation by FBI Director Christopher Wray, who expressed concern that the Chinese Communist Party would weaponize the data that it was collecting. Many states are also taking action to ban the app from state devices.
While these initiatives are necessary, they are simply a good start. Brendan Carr, one of the commissioners of the FCC, strongly asserted that steps should be taken to ban the use of the app in the U.S. entirely, even going so far as to send letters to Apple and Google asking them to remove the app from their app stores. A bipartisan bill introduced by Senator Marco Rubio and other representatives would do exactly what is required by banning the app in the U.S.
Both Carr and Rubio realize what time it is. China is actively harvesting data on a gigantic scale. It is only a matter of time before China will weaponize this data if they haven’t already. The cyber threat of TikTok to the U.S. is evident. We cannot continue to allow the proliferation of what is essentially the most successful spread of spyware in history. Contradicting their initial efforts to stop ByteDance from selling off its U.S. operation of TikTok, the Biden Administration is now coming back to its senses and pushing for the sale. This solution must once again be prioritized, but if it continues to fail, lawmakers on both sides must support a total ban to safeguard the data of Americans and their government.
Caleb Larson is a cybersecurity researcher, policy analyst with the Internet Accountability Project, a Heritage Foundation alum, and contributor at Human Events where he writes about cybersecurity-related issues facing the United States.
Unlike the Big Tech monopolies, the Internet Accountability Project pledges to never sell or share your personal information, which is your property.