Earlier this week, FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers in Washington that he was “extremely concerned” that Beijing could weaponize data collected via the social media app TikTok. During a House Homeland Security hearing on current threats to the United States, the FBI head said that Beijing could harness the video-sharing app to influence users or even control their devices.
Wray’s warning came just days after Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) was joined by U.S. Representative Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin) in calling for a national ban on TikTok. At issue with Sen. Rubio and Rep. Gallagher is the fact that under China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, all of its citizens and businesses are required to assist in intelligence gathering, and must share any data with Beijing.
Experts stress that the threat from the Chinese-owned app isn’t exactly overstated.
“These are legitimate concerns, overblown but legitimate,” said Dr. Clifford Lampe, professor of information and associate dean for Academic Affairs at the School of Information at the University of Michigan.
“TikTok really collects as much data as any social media platform,” Lampe added. “This is really generalized fears over China, but I haven’t heard anything actionable at this point.
TikTok’s U.S. traffic also goes through Oracle servers, and ByteDance – the company that owns the platform – has strived to keep the U.S. part of the company separate from its Chinese operations.
“While TikTok may sound quite distanced from a national threat, FBI Director Wray is correct in noting TikTok as a serious risk to Americans,” explained Dr. Willam Pefrey Jr., professor in the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Taking a cybersecurity view, Pelfrey warned that when software is used on a device – including a phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop – one or more pieces of software are usually embedded on the device. These application programming interfaces help the software to run smoothly, but sometimes also collect information.
Ominously, these small pieces of software may even remain active after the application is closed.
“Watching a funny cat video on TikTok may sound simple, but the consequences can be substantial. Since TikTok is operated by a Chinese-based company, the United States does not regulate it the same way an American-based company is regulated,” Pelfrey noted. “That means TikTok, once opened on a phone or device, can collect and distribute important information to a state-sponsored agency.”
China is of course notorious for stealing American technology, particularly sophisticated military weaponry – which is why the U.S. Department of Defense has banned the use of TikTok on government-owned smartphones and other devices.
“The other pieces of this are about the nature of the impact beyond just unidimensional cyber theft on several different levels,” added Dr. Christopher Whyte, professor of cybersecurity and homeland security at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“There is concern about the utility of something like TikTok for influence operations, something that is more nuanced, but also more likely than large data heists enabled by TikTok,” suggested Whyte.
As the phone could always be listening, even if national secrets aren’t shared, information that could lead to the compromise of an individual is very much the concern.
At issue, however, is how to actually stop TikTok. Could there even be a ban?
“It is possible to put pressure on the platforms that host it, Apple and Google,” said Lampe. “The most successful effort would be something like a ‘great firewall,’ but that’s unlikely to happen. The biggest issue is that free speech laws in the U.S. do make it hard to shut down a company that isn’t actually breaking the law.”