On August 6, 2020, President Trump signed two executive orders banning Chinese-owned apps TikTok and WeChat, respectively, citing a threat to “the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” In other words, the orders instructed the Commerce Secretary to define what the ban will look like within forty-five days after the date of signature of the executive order. Given the extensive impact of TikTok and other Chinese apps on the world, a thorough analysis is necessary to determine the validity of the national security concerns.
For those who may not be familiar, TikTok is a mobile app for short-form videos, videos that can hold a viewer’s attention span while engagingly displaying a message. According to TikTok, their mission “is to inspire creativity and bring joy.” For many young people, that mission has been achieved, serving as a critical platform for online meeting, content creation, and fun, especially amidst quarantine.
Before TikTok existed, the Musical.ly app launched in Shanghai in 2014, created for lip-syncing to music and strongly tied to the US business market. In 2016, Chinese tech giant ByteDance launched a similar service in China called Douyin which rapidly grew popular in China and Thailand. Then in 2018, ByteDance decided to buy Musical.ly and expand under a new brand: TikTok.
On the other hand, WeChat, a popular messaging app, enables users in the US to connect with family members back in China when other platforms like Facebook and Telegram are blocked by the Chinese firewall.
Countries such as India and the US raised concerns, similar to those regarding the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, that the Chinese government spies and influences others by collecting TikTok’s user data on facial characteristics, locations, viewed and commented videos, phone models, operating systems, and typing keystroke rhythms.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has expressed that a major part of achieving his “Chinese Dream” involves a military-civil fusion or a deliberate erasing of the line between China’s military and civilian sectors, thereby benefiting from technological advancements regardless of their origin. Cooperation of private companies in China that develop new technologies is required by the Chinese 2017 National Intelligence Law, mandating any organization or citizen to “support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law, and keep the secrets of the national intelligence work known to the public.” U.S. Senator Josh Hawley even declared that TikTok “includes Chinese Communist Party members in leadership.”
Nevertheless, like Huawei, TikTok leadership promised that “we would definitely say no to any request for data.” The company also stated that U.S. user data is stored in the United States and that China has no jurisdiction over content outside of China.
However, there are some who have taken action. Last year, U.S. agencies, including the U.S. Army and Navy, banned employees from using the app. India, home of TikTok’s largest external market, initially banned the app in April 2019, but the decision was overturned. Then in June 2020, India banned TikTok again, along with 59 other Chinese apps citing data theft.
To combat these suspicions, TikTok announced the opening of a “Transparency Center” at the Los Angeles office where external experts will oversee its operations, gain insight into the app’s source code, examine its software, and evaluate its privacy and security.
As TikTok’s relationship with Washington gets tough, competition is rising. There is Triller, which is growing quickly in popularity especially in India, reaching #1 on the App Store in fifty countries. Instagram recently introduced Reels, a platform that mirrors TikTok’s functions, and even reached out with monetary deals to encourage users to break with TikTok and switch to Instagram. One report by the Wall Street Journal even claimed that Facebook, which owns Instagram, started warning about the security risk of TikTok back in September of 2019 as a deliberate attempt to turn away a competitive rival and maintain dominance over social media.
However, TikTok may stay with the help of Microsoft. One report announced that the American tech company wants to buy all of TikTok, not just its operations in the US. While still in preliminary stages, the deal aims to finish on September 15. If TikTok is sold to an American company, President Trump said he wouldn’t close down the app. Some hope that under Microsoft, transparency and digital protection are guaranteed. Others condemn the purchase, calling it “theft” and “open robbery” of Chinese technology.
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