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TikTok and the Battle for Data Security

April 6, 2023

The ongoing issues concerning TikTok, one of the world’s most heavily used apps, continue with more bans and renewed mistrust of its Chinese parent company, ByteDance. TikTok is a video based social media app that sees millions of users log on every day to record and share videos ranging anywhere from just a few seconds, to several minutes long. Controversies regarding the app’s collection of user data and personal information gave way to government investigations and limitations on its use. The question now is whether the app could see a permanent ban in the United States as a result of these security issues.

The concern with TikTok’s access to the personal information of users is largely focused on the Chinese government. Chinese laws permit the government to demand data from domestic companies in order to gather all kinds of information and intelligence. This could include more than just usage trends of people who downloaded the app, but also location information or personal data saved on the user’s mobile device. Beyond that, unease surrounding TikTok’s Chinese ownership also relates to the censorship of certain topics or users, and the spread of misinformation about world leaders or current events.

Aside from TikTok’s legal team, who argued that banning the app was equivalent to banning free speech, the app found support from within its own community of users as well. Many individuals who post videos on TikTok and use it as a means of self-promotion have spoken out against the ban by citing the app’s usefulness for advertising. Moreover, TikTok is not just popular with people and businesses for marketing reasons, but also with younger users who want to take part in the latest viral video trends. Whether it's funny skits, DIY tips, or cute pets, the app can curate a stream of videos that caters to one’s interests, and many users are reluctant to lose that content, even if it means giving up some of their digital privacy.

Despite the seemingly innocent and benign uses of the app, TikTok remains subject to heavy scrutiny because of what is going on behind the scenes. More recently, the app has been banned on managed devices by universities around the country in order to protect students, school administrators and faculty. Likewise, the White House implored US federal agencies to remove the app from government devices by the end of March. Other countries have taken a hard stance against TikTok as well; Britain, Canada, France and New Zealand pushed for similar bans on government devices in order to protect against the perceived security threats. India even banned the app entirely for similar geopolitical reasons. Unlike the Trump administration restrictions, these bans and limitations have held together for the time being.

As of now, TikTok’s future remains unclear. While efforts to ban the app led to mixed results across the country, there is still hope that it could be shut down or, at the very least, removed from Chinese control if the company was to be sold by ByteDance. A recent Congressional hearing with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew lasted over four hours and saw immense bipartisan unity as the House Energy and Commerce Committee investigated and scrutinized the potential harm of TikTok. Although Chew was able to point out that other social media powerhouses, like Facebook, engage in similar means of data collection, Republicans and Democrats agree that the security issues with TikTok pose unique challenges because of Chinese influence. In short, a blanket ban is not off the table yet, much to the dismay of content creators and social media “influencers” alike.

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