Every now and then, TikTok is criticized for its affiliation with a Chinese company, not to mention its many serious technological and security risks. During his tenure, former President Donald Trump waged a war on the app and called for its ban in the US. With allegations that the app violates the privacy of its US users, many question about current President Joe Biden’s position on TikTok, and whether it still poses a threat to US national security.
The debate over TikTok has raged in the US over the past few years, with the app now seen as a security and societal threat that poses a wide range of challenges to the US:
1. Lack of User Privacy: Allegations have been leveled against TikTok that its employees residing in China frequently accessed US user data between September 2021 and January 2022. These suspicions arose after a series of internal staff meeting recordings and presentations were uncovered, during which US TikTok employees were advised to ask their colleagues in China to access US user data because they could not do so themselves.
"China sees everything" said a member of the app’s Trust and Safety Management Team, while another affirmed, "An engineer based in China has access to everything." As a result, and in an effort to allay US concerns, TikTok announced that US user data would be channeled to Oracle-owned servers in the US.
2. US National Security Exposure to China: Many now assert that the app is collecting and storing the personal data of US citizens and then sending it to servers in China. These servers include those belonging to the Chinese army, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and state agencies intent on stealing US intellectual property rights. These analyses have raised concerns about Chinese laws that require local companies to support and cooperate with the CCP. On this basis, several TikTok critics have accused the app of being used for surveillance and espionage purposes, which ultimately threatens US security.
3. Undermining US Anti-Russian Efforts: TikTok and other social media have become the latest tool used in the information war between Washington and Russia. In this context, Washington sees the app as a platform for promoting the Russian narrative on a myriad of issues, especially the war in Ukraine, which in turn weakens US strategies against Moscow. This threat was addressed directly in a letter sent by Republican members of the US Senate on June 17 to Shou Zi Chew, TikTok’s CEO, which asked about Russian propaganda published on the app. "Recent reports indicate TikTok […] has allowed Russian state media to flood the platform with dangerous pro-war propaganda," the letter stated, adding, "No company should find itself in the position of amplifying the Kremlin’s lies, which fuel popular support for Russia’s war of choice in Ukraine." The members went on to say that they were "deeply concerned that TikTok is enabling the spread pro-war propaganda to the Russian public, which risks adding to an already devastating human tool for both Ukrainians and Russians."
4. Breach of Children’s Online Privacy Laws: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and US Department of Justice have already investigated claims that the app failed to comply with children’s privacy laws, thereby reinforcing the calls for the US TikTok ban. Alongside groups such as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Digital Democracy has recently called on the FTC to consider the app’s failure to delete the videos and personal information of users aged 13 years or younger.
5. Youth Health Concerns: TikTok users have posed a variety of viral "challenges" that attract the youth and teenagers, but that also may cause significant harm to their health, and even death in some cases. One such challenge is the "Whey Protein Challenge," where participants eat a dry spoonful of whey protein that athletes usually consume before workouts, which can cause suffocation, pneumonia, heart disorders, and more. In this case, researchers from the Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New York note that a spoonful of whey protein may contain the same caffeine as five cups of coffee, in addition to other substances that may cause health problems for teenagers. Moreover, another famous challenge involved dropping a piece of metal between the phone charger and the power plug, which led to one American teenager being electrocuted.
Little Action Anticipated
Despite the aforementioned risks to American security and society, the Biden administration seems unlikely to pursue any radical policies against the app:
1. Biden’s Position: In 2020, then President Trump threatened a nationwide ban on TikTok, calling it a national security risk. Then, last year, President Biden rescinded all of Trump’s executive orders concerned with banning TikTok and WeChat (another Chinese social media platform) from the US markets. Instead, he called for an "evidence-based" risk assessment for internet apps controlled by foreign entities. In other words, it appears that, though Biden recognizes the app‘s potential hazards, his administration prefers compromise over a direct clash with TikTok.
2. ByteDance to the Rescue: TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, has made extreme efforts to eliminate the US Administration’s concerns about the popular app, especially with regards to access to US user information. It has already addressed and seemingly assuaged data access and security concerns, while also shedding light on the dangers found in all forms of social media.
"Our goal is to minimize data access across regions so that, for example, employees in the Asia-Pacific region, including China, would have very minimal access to user data from the EU and the US" said Roland Cloutier, Chief Information Security Officer at TikTok. According to the company, the app has also brought in world-class internal and external security experts to enhance its data security measures.
3. Easing US Tariffs: Biden announced that he and his team are in the process of making a decision on easing tariffs on China to combat record-high inflation, as well as confirmed that he intends to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping on these matters soon. Tariffs are undoubtedly one of the most prominent sticking points in Sino-US relations over the past few years, especially when Trump took office. However, the economic restrictions were not limited just to tariffs, but also included a trade war and steps to ban Chinese tech companies, including ByteDance, from the US market.
4. TikTok’s Usage Among US Politicians: Noting the significant slump in Biden’s approval rating among young people between 18-34 years of age since taking office, the White House is trying to find ways to reach TikTok’s young audience. To that end, the Democratic National Committee created an account on the app, making sure to take extra precautions when developing its content and communicating with voters.
Other prominent Democrats, such as Stacey Abrams and Senator Jon Ossoff, have also joined the app, and the White House even briefed TikTok’s stars on the state’s stance on the Russian-Ukrainian War. As such, it seems that the Biden administration realizes TikTok’s popularity and potential efficacy in reaching younger voters and expressing its views on the most pressing issues of the day.
In conclusion, according to Cloudflare, an internet traffic tracking company, TikTok was the world’s most widely used app in 2021, beating even Instagram in terms of most viewed content. The app is becoming increasingly important for the Biden administration’s efforts to connect with the coveted youth demographic, who will play a massive role in the upcoming congressional midterm elections next November. Despite national security concerns, the Biden administration is not expected to take any harsh steps against TikTok, especially given the widespread risks of social media in general, electoral considerations, as well as the many efforts made by its parent company to preserve user data.