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Politicians Push for TikTok Ban, Saying It's a Threat to National Security

Tech experts say that might not be the right way to handle the problem, and instead argue for privacy protections.

Bree Fowler Senior Writer
Bree Fowler writes about cybersecurity and digital privacy. Before joining CNET she reported for The Associated Press and Consumer Reports. A Michigan native, she's a long-suffering Detroit sports fan, world traveler, two star marathoner and champion baker of over-the-top birthday cakes and all-things sourdough.
Expertise Cybersecurity, Digital Privacy, IoT, Consumer Tech, Running and Fitness Tech, Smartphones, Wearables
Bree Fowler
4 min read
An image of the TikTok logo on a phone in front of a Chinese flag made up of code.

Some members of Congress want to ban TikTok from operating in the US.

Getty

Some American lawmakers want to ban TikTok over worries that its 150 million US users could be a powerful weapon in the hands of the Chinese government.

Proposals bouncing around both the US House and Senate would do just that, though the technical details remain fuzzy. And an unprecedented move like this would undoubtedly prompt legal challenges from free-speech advocates, the tech industry and others, especially in the absence of any direct evidence showing Chinese government ties or surveillance.

The growing calls for such a ban follow the more than four-hour grilling of TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew by a House committee last month. During the meeting, several members angrily charged that the app could be used to both gather intelligence about Americans and spread dangerous disinformation in service of that government's agenda.

They also railed against the company's perceived data collection and sharing habits, as well as the potential effects of explicit and otherwise inappropriate content on the growing minds of kids and teenagers.

Chew repeatedly insisted during the hearing that his company, which is based in Singapore and Los Angeles, operates independently from both its China-based parent ByteDance and the Chinese government.

After the hearing's conclusion, TikTok also released a statement accusing the committee members of "political grandstanding" and failing to acknowledge the company's efforts to address data protection concerns through efforts like Project Texas, which the company says would keep American user data in the US.   

While some security experts agree it's possible that TikTok could pose a danger to national security, they argue that a ban isn't the right way to handle those concerns. Instead, they argue that political leaders should focus on passing federal digital privacy legislation that would regulate how all social media companies collect, protect and share user data. 

"We're not China," said Justin Fier, senior vice president for red team operations at the AI security company Darktrace. "There's no 'Great Firewall' here. We don't monitor every packet that goes back and forth."

Fier said that from a practical standpoint he doesn't understand how such a ban would work in the US, other than by forcing companies like Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores, which in itself would be a "massive" move.

That said, Fier and other data security experts say politicians are right to be worried about TikTok's impact on national security. 

"From a targeting perspective, it's the perfect data set," he said, noting that Chinese intelligence officials could easily filter the massive amounts of data collected by the app to find specific Americans to target for espionage purposes.

Anton Dahbura, executive director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University, agrees. He says that Chinese efforts to gather data on the American population at large are nothing new, noting that its government has been tied to everything from the massive data breach of the Marriott hotel chain to swarms of surveillance drones discovered in the skies of Washington, DC.

Meanwhile, he says the stakes continue to increase as the definition of what's now considered critical infrastructure continues to broaden. While facilities like meat-packing plants and schools may not have been considered to be part of this category a few years ago, they are now, Dahbura says. But their data security resources and practices haven't kept pace, making them soft targets for nation-state hackers.

Data collected by TikTok could give those digital intelligence operators the information they need to target them, he said. 

"This is something everyone should take seriously," he said. Dahbura added that while other social media companies are also collecting that same data, "it's over the top to have an open pipeline directly to foreign governments for them to use as they please."

Despite that, he agrees that a ban would do little good, saying that Americans will find a way around it or move to imitators that will inevitably pop up.

Dahbura says the mishmash of complaints and issues thrown around by the politicians calling for a ban shows how members of Congress don't really understand how social media and the technology behind it work.

There were at least a handful of times during the hearing where representatives asked questions that didn't make any sense, including whether TikTok accessed home Wi-Fi networks. Apps don't access networks, but devices like phones and laptops do, then apps connect to the internet through them. Another such question was whether TikTok monitors pupil dilation. Chew said it doesn't. It just identifies the eyes on a person's face when they're using certain kinds of filters.

At the same time, some of the committee members tried to put the focus on the perceived evils of social media as a whole, for example, pointing to the suicide death of a teenager last year that allegedly happened after the teen watched TikTok videos promoting suicide.

While those are big problems, they aren't unique to TikTok, Dahbura said. "That eliminated their credibility for me," he said of the panel.

Fier said that given the vast amounts of data social media companies collect and store, the government will have to ultimately decide whether it wants to regulate them as it does financial institutions and other data-heavy industries.

Given the millions of people and businesses that use TikTok and social media,"it would be a tough culture shift to go backward," he said. 

Both experts said that one thing Congress could do is finally pass a federal privacy law. Right now, in the US tech companies are governed by a patchwork of state laws. While admittedly this wouldn't stop Chinese espionage efforts, it could go a long way toward addressing other long-running concerns about social media as a whole.

"Our politicians have become extremely reactive in regards to technology," Dahbura said. "But the way technology is moving, we can't be reactive anymore. We have to be proactive."