While TikTok has over 150 million US users, who are increasingly spending more of their time in the app, its popularity could also be clouding concerns around its potential for harm, which is the key focus of the ongoing discussions around whether or not to ban the app.
And while, for the most part, I would trust the advice of cybersecurity experts on this front, with various officials, from various nations, raising significant concerns about the app, I would also look to other cases where China-based groups have been seeking to infiltrate US-based networks, in order to gather information, seed propaganda, and manipulate opinion.
Which is happening all the time. Just today, Microsoft reported that Chinese state-sponsored group ‘Volt Tycoon’ has conducted various operations designed to disrupt critical communications infrastructure between the US and Asia, with a view to manipulating such in cases of future crises.
As per Microsoft:
“Volt Typhoon has been active since mid-2021 and has targeted critical infrastructure organizations in Guam and elsewhere in the United States. In this campaign, the affected organizations span the communications, manufacturing, utility, transportation, construction, maritime, government, information technology, and education sectors. Observed behavior suggests that the threat actor intends to perform espionage and maintain access without being detected for as long as possible.”
Google, meanwhile, has removed tens of thousands of YouTube channels over the past year linked to another China-based threat actor called ‘Dragonbridge’, which seeks to build YouTube audiences with a view to spreading pro-China propaganda, while Twitter and Facebook are also regularly tasked with addressing Chinese-backed campaigns designed to control and influence discussion within each app.
Given the scope of efforts to mitigate such on non-Chinese-owned platforms, it seems pretty safe to assume that TikTok, which is owned by China’s ByteDance, is even more likely to be a vector for the same. And with ByteDance based in China, it’s harder for authorities to ensure optimal transparency over such, while the company is also bound by China’s cybersecurity laws, which effectively grant full data access to CCP officials on request.
Add to this reports that ByteDance has many CCP-aligned staff, and that the company has itself sought to use TikTok data for surveillance purposes, on US journalists no less, and it does seem that there’s a fairly strong case for concern about TikTok’s operational approaches in this respect, and how it could be a tool for illicit schemes.
TikTok, of course, has repeatedly denied this, while also claiming that its US user data will soon be siloed off from all China-based staff. But even that claim has been refuted by Oracle, its key partner in this project, while recent reports have also suggested that TikTok staff have been sharing user information via internal messaging systems, which can easily be infiltrated.
At best, the reports suggest that TikTok’s teams have a different view on optimal data security than many western cybersecurity experts, while at worst, they reflect that TikTok is indeed beholden to the Chinese Government, and that parent company ByteDance is already doing its bidding.
And again, when you match this up with broader reportage of China-based influence operations in other apps, I’d says the case for a TikTok ban is fairly strong, particularly as China continues to escalate tensions with neighboring regions, and threaten to challenge the US on different fronts.
The counter-argument that other apps also track and utilize similar user data is not the same in this respect, as there’s no geopolitical adversarialism within US-based organizations. And there’s no record of Meta or Twitter looking to manipulate such in the same way, with ByteDance seemingly taking a different view to this element than US companies.
Does that mean that TikTok should be banned? Again, I would side with the experts on this front, who would be much more informed of the potential for harm. But I would note that there is a strong case, and that if you are advocating for TikTok to remain in operation, you need to consider your personal bias within that, and whether the reported facts match up with this stance.
CFIUS is still deliberating on a US ban, and TikTok is still working to address all concerns, which could still see a collaborative solution established. But don’t be surprised if the White House does announce a ban, sometime in the near future. Whether you like the app or not.