TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, 2023, in the midst of a chorus of calls from members of Congress for the federal government to ban the Chinese-owned social media video app and reports that the Biden administration is push for the sale of the company.
The federal government, along with many state and foreign governments and some companies, has banned TikTok on work-supplied phones. This type of ban can be effective for protecting data related to government work.
But a complete ban on the app is another matter, which raises a number of questions: What risk to data privacy does TikTok pose? What could the Chinese government do with data collected by the app? Is the content recommendation algorithm dangerous? And is it even possible to ban an app?
Suck up data
Like a cybersecurity researcherI’ve noticed that every few years a new mobile app that becomes popular raises issues related to security, privacy, and data access.
Apps collect data for various reasons. Sometimes the data is used to improve the app for users. However, most apps collect data that the companies use in part to fund their operations. This revenue usually comes from targeting ads to users based on the data they collect. The questions this use of data raises are: Does the app need all this data? What does it do with the data? And how does it protect the data from others?
If most apps collect data, why is the US government concerned about TikTok? First, they are concerned about the Chinese government has access to data his 150 million users in the US There is also concern about the algorithms TikTok uses to display content.
Data held by the Chinese government
If the data does end up in the hands of the Chinese government, the question is how it can use the data to its advantage. The government could share it with other companies in China to help them make a profit, which is no different from US companies sharing marketing data. The Chinese government is known for it play the long gameand data is power, so if it collects data, it could take years to figure out how it benefits China.
One possible threat is that the Chinese government will use the data to spy on people, especially people who have access to valuable information. The Justice Department is investigating TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance using the app to track American journalists. The Chinese government has an extensive history of hacking US government agencies and companiesand much of that hacking is powered by social engineering – the practice of using data about people to trick them into revealing more information.
The second issue raised by the US government is algorithm bias or algorithm manipulation. TikTok and most social media apps have algorithms designed to learn a user’s interests and then tailor the content to keep the user using the app. TikTok hasn’t shared its algorithm, so it’s not clear how the app chooses a user’s content.
The algorithm can be biased enough to influence a population to believe certain things. There are numerous allegations that TiKTok’s algorithm is biased and it can be reinforcing negative thoughts in younger usersand get used to influence public opinion. It could be that the algorithm’s manipulative behavior is unintentional, but there are concerns that the Chinese government is using or could use the algorithm to influence people.
Can the government ban an app?
If the federal government comes to the conclusion that TikTok should be banned, is it even possible to ban it for all of its 150 million existing users? Such a ban would likely start with blocking distribution of the app through Apple’s and Google’s app stores. This may put many users off the platform, but there are other ways to download and install apps for people determined to use them.
A more drastic method would be to force Apple and Google to change their phones to prevent TikTok from running. While I’m not a lawyer, I think this attempt would fail due to legal challenges, those include First Amendment concerns. The bottom line is that an absolute ban will be difficult to enforce.
There are also questions about how effective a ban would be, even if it were possible. According to some estimates, the Chinese government has already collected personal information about at least 80% of the US population through various means. So a ban could limit the damage to some extent in the future, but the Chinese government has already collected a significant amount of data. The Chinese government – along with everyone else who has money – also has access to the large market for personal data, which fuels it calls for stricter data privacy rules.
Are you at risk?
As an average user, should you be concerned? Again, it’s unclear what data ByteDance collects and whether it could harm an individual. I think the main risks are for people in power, whether it’s political power or within a company. Their data and information can be used to gain access to other data or to compromise the organizations they are connected to.
The aspect of TikTok that I find most concerning is the algorithm that determines what videos users see and how it may affect vulnerable groups, especially young people. Independent of a ban, families need to repent about TikTok and other social media platforms and how they can be harmful to mental health. These conversations should focus on how you can determine if the app is leading you down an unhealthy path.
This article has been updated to reflect that TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before Congress on March 23, 2023.