The United States is ratcheting up national security concerns about TikTok, mandating that all federal employees delete the Chinese-owned social media app from government-issued mobile phones. Other Western governments are pursuing similar bans, citing espionage fears.
So how serious is the threat? And should TikTok users who don’t work for the government be worried about the app, too?
The answers depend somewhat on whom you ask, and how concerned you are in general about technology companies gathering and sharing personal data.
The White House said Monday it is giving U.S. federal agencies 30 days to delete TikTok from all government-issued mobile devices.
Congress, the White House, U.S. armed forces and more than half of U.S. states had already banned TikTok amid concerns that its parent company, ByteDance, would give user data — such as browsing history and location — to the Chinese government, or push propaganda and misinformation on its behalf.
The European Union’s executive branch has temporarily banned TikTok from employee phones, and Denmark and Canada have announced efforts to block TikTok on government-issued phones.
China says the bans reveal the United States’ insecurities and are an abuse of state power. But they come at a time when Western technology companies, including Airbnb, Yahoo and LinkedIn, have been leaving China or downsizing operations there because of Beijing’s strict privacy law that specifies how companies can collect and store data.
Both the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission have warned that ByteDance could share TikTok user data with China’s authoritarian government.
A law China implemented in 2017 requires companies to give the government any personal data relevant to the country’s national security. There’s no evidence that TikTok has turned over such data, but fears abound due to the vast amount of user data it collects.
Concerns were heightened in December when ByteDance said it fired four employees who accessed data on two journalists from Buzzfeed News and The Financial Times while attempting to track down the source of a leaked report about the company. TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said the breach was an “egregious misuse” of the employees’ authority.
There is also concern about TikTok’s content and whether it harms teenagers’ mental health. Researchers from the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate said in a report released in December that eating disorder content on the platform had amassed 13.2 billion views. Roughly two-thirds of U.S. teens use TikTok, according to the Pew Research Center.
U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco has expressed concerns that the Chinese government could gain access to user data.
“I don’t use TikTok, and I would not advise anyone to do so,” Monaco said earlier this month at the policy institute Chatham House in London.
TikTok said in a blog post in June that it will route all data from U.S. users to servers controlled by Oracle, the Silicon Valley company it chose as its U.S. tech partner in 2020 in an effort to avoid a nationwide ban. But it is storing backups of the data in its own servers in the U.S. and Singapore. The company said it expects to delete U.S. user data from its own servers, but it did not provide a timeline as to when that would occur.
But the amount of information TikTok collects might not be that different from other popular social media sites, experts say.
Its unclear how much the government-wide TikTok ban might impact the company. Oberwetter, the TikTok spokesperson, said it has “no way” of knowing whether its users are government employees.
The company, though, has questioned the bans, saying it has not been given an opportunity to answer questions and that governments were cutting themselves off from a platform beloved by millions.