Internet Government Project Study Examines National Security Risk of TikTok
By: Evan Enzer
Most of the recent discourse around TikTok, a popular video sharing app, is accompanied by headlines like “FBI Director Says TikTok is a threat to National Security,” but a new study released in January 2023 suggests that statement may be misleading. However, privacy and cybersecurity concerns still create problems for TikTok in California and the U.S.
The report, authored by the Internet Governance Project at Georgia Tech (IGP), came to several conclusions regarding TikTok.
- The company is not censoring material unfriendly to China.
- The app’s data collection practices may be a national security risk in some circumstances. However, this same concern extends to every social media platform.
- TikTok is a commercial entity and not an arm of the Chinese government.
- A total TikTok ban would harm U.S. users who rely on the app for their livelihood and entertainment, weaken industry competition for companies like Meta, and may lead to Chinese retaliation against American companies.
The IGP came to its conclusions by examining several sources, including TikTok’s corporate history, international shareholders, its historically distant relationship with the Chinese government, content moderation practices, and cybersecurity practices.
According to the IGP, TikTok is just a social media app, and its national security implications are no more significant than any other American app. The only evidence-based risk that results from American TikTok use is the collection and sharing of personal data that the U.S. government considers to be a routine commercial activity for domestic corporations. Any platform can sell or share sensitive information with foreign governments, and any foreign government could hack a platform’s servers.
Albert Fox Cahn, executive director at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a privacy and civil rights advocacy organization, agrees with the IGP’s conclusions in principle. “We need to be careful about nativism dressed up as cyber security,” he says. “TikTok’s data collection poses a danger to users’ privacy, but show me a social media app where that’s not true.” While TikTik should not be a unique area of concern, explains Mr. Cahn, “the ever-expanding web of public and private surveillance poses a threat to all of our safety, and even democracy itself. Rather than focusing on just one company, we need to push back on the full range of institutions weaponizing our own data against us.”
Despite the IGP’s findings, U.S. lawmakers and institutions continue to restrict TikTok. Days after the IGP report was published, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers joined nearly half of all U.S. states in ordering state employees to cease using the popular app on their government devices. “Defending our state’s technology and cybersecurity infrastructure and protecting digital privacy will continue to be a top priority,” Mr. Evers tweeted. California lawmakers have floated similar bans. Likewise, on January 12th, the University of Florida encouraged students to give up the video sharing service, citing the company’s data collection practices.
It remains unclear how further research will impact TikTok’s national security saga and influence U.S. law. However, the current policy trends likely won’t change until a critical mass of researchers accept the IGP’s conclusions, the political animosity towards China cools, or TikTok ceases being the most immediate example of a multinational tech company that collects extensive amounts of data.