Chinese company ByteDance faces growing concerns from governments and regulators that user data from its popular short video-sharing app TikTok could be handed over to the Chinese government. The concern is based on China’s national security laws, which give its government the power to compel Chinese-based companies to hand over any user data. More than 100 million Americans have reportedly downloaded this popular short video-sharing app on their devices.
In its defense, ByteDance maintains TikTok is operated independently of ByteDance, that all TikTok app user data is held on servers outside of China and further that it doesn’t share data with the Chinese government. ByteDance also claims other social media companies collect far more user data than does TikTok, yet aren’t being threatened with bans.
Concerns about TikTok have existed for years. Since 2017, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which investigates foreign investments in U.S. companies which have a potential national security risk, has been reviewing ByteDance’s practices, as a result of ByteDance’s acquisition of U.S. company Musical.ly. CFIUS’ investigation into the Bytedance/Musical.ly transaction remains open because of unresolved concerns about ByteDance’s use of user data, the potential data could be passed on to the Chinese government and concerns about the inability to monitor or enforce whatever restrictions ByteDance might even agree even to. However, CFIUS has suggested ByteDance should divest the TikTok’s American operations.
Meanwhile, more than 30 states and now the Biden Administration have banned government employees from using the TikTok app on government-owned devices. In Congress, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to advance a bill, known as the Deterring America’s Technology Adversaries Act (DATA Act) to ban anyone in the United States from accessing or downloading the TikTok app on their phones. If enacted into law, this would mean that Apple and Google would no longer be able to offer the TikTok app in their app stores. ByteDance is reportedly talking with Apple and Google about a data security plan that ByteDance has proposed to CFIUS to be sure the plan would also be acceptable to Apple and Google. The plan purportedly includes having Oracle host TikTok’s U.S. user data on its servers, as well as vet TikTok’s software and updates before they are sent to the app stores.
The U.S. is not alone in raising security concerns over the TikTok app. Canada, The European Parliament, European Commission and the EU Council have banned the TikTok app from being loaded onto government or organization owned devices. Some require employees and staff ban the TikTok app on personal devices with access to government or organization systems. Most have also recommended lawmakers and employees remove the TikTok app from their personal devices, even if they don’t access government or organization systems. Pakistan and Afghanistan have also imposed bans on TikTok, but because of its content, not because of security concerns.
Some countries have gone even further to impose outright bans on the TikTok app. In 2021, India imposed a permanent ban on the TikTok app and several other Chinese apps. In December 2022, Taiwan imposed a public sector ban on the TikTok app after the FBI warned that the TikTok app posed a national security risk.
While TikTok is the current focus of legislators and regulators, some say security developments at other social media platforms should also be kept under constant review. The DATA Act bill would also require Biden to impose a ban on companies transferring sensitive personal data to an entity subject to the influence of China, although the details of this provision are not completely clear from the bill.