Aug 5, 2020 - Technology

TikTok sale drama clouds the app's genuine security concerns

Illustration of the Chinese flag with the stars rendered in TikTok's logo style.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Political and economic motivations behind a sale or shutdown of TikTok in the U.S. are obscuring sincere security concerns raised by the rise of the Chinese-owned social video app.

The big picture: U.S. intelligence officials evince deep worry over Chinese companies’ ability to resist Beijing’s demands for data.

Where it stands: TikTok as it’s used by most Americans — for memeable short videos of people dancing, joking and lip-syncing to other videos — doesn’t immediately scream security risk.

  • But national security officials worry that Beijing, should it compel TikTok parent ByteDance to turn over data, could still farm the app for intelligence-gathering purposes.

TikTok data could…

  • Reveal users’ locations, personally identifiable information and larger social networks to Beijing’s spies. That in turn could help Chinese intelligence agencies hunt down foreign intelligence operatives (such as CIA officers), potential intelligence targets (such as businesspeople) and Chinese dissidents abroad.
  • Be scraped for information like email addresses that could be used to help hack targets’ other accounts.
  • Be mined to hone artificial intelligence systems or otherwise improve China’s big data capabilities. For instance, China could improve government facial recognition tech by training it on a wider range of ethnicities than is possible domestically, noted a former senior intelligence official.

The other side: TikTok says all of its data is stored outside of China and is therefore safe from potential prying by Beijing.

  • TikTok is not actually available for users in China; ByteDance instead operates a nearly identical app domestically.
  • Still, that’s done little to assuage China hawks, who note that recent Chinese laws assert the power to demand data from any company that so much as does business in the country.
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