Why America Is Afraid of TikTok
“How can videos of kids dancing to hip-hop music possibly be a dire threat to anything? But in Washington, the perceived national-security risks of TikTok are very real, and in recent weeks, attitudes toward the company have hardened. TikTok has become a symbol of the new challenge a rising, tech-enabled China presents not simply to a free society, but to American dominance in the technology sector. The internet today is largely run—for better or worse—by American corporations such as Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook, and TikTok is the first Chinese company to truly break through to the American, and global, consciousness, something its compatriots, including Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent, have yet to do.
Fears are percolating in the U.S. that Beijing, thanks to its growing technological might, may be amassing an immense storehouse of information that could be used to identify or blackmail American citizens—or for purposes we haven’t yet thought of. The worry is that TikTok could be a powerful vacuum, sucking up images of and details on unsuspecting Americans to feed Beijing’s voracious appetite.
….Zhang insists that ByteDance has never turned over information on Americans to Chinese authorities, and that it never would. “We have never received such a request … from the Chinese government, and we don’t think there will be such a request,” Zhang told me. “Even if we get such a request, it is impossible” to comply.
He is probably being perfectly sincere. There’s no hard evidence that he’s working for the Communist Party, at least none that has become public. (Zhang told me that he isn’t a party member.) But amid the escalating distrust of China, Zhang’s promises and pledges mean little. The regime has fostered an impression that all of its 1.4 billion citizens are loyal, or can be made loyal, to the party. In theory, then, that means anyone with a Chinese passport could be a spy, or could be compelled to be a spy.
….the controversy over TikTok offers a window into American and Chinese societies at this crucial moment, and where they might be going. TikTok shows the best and worst of modern China—both its boundless potential to generate wealth and ideas that can benefit everybody and the fear and conflict caused by its expansive and expanding authoritarianism.
The app has been downloaded 165 million times in the U.S. alone, according to the research firm Sensor Tower, and globally tops 2 billion downloads, placing it among the most popular apps in the world. Americans—and users elsewhere—record and share videos of themselves lip-synching, dancing, telling jokes, or any number of other zany, creative, surprisingly personal (and potentially embarrassing) things. The fact that users can borrow and remix each other’s audio is a key differentiator on the app, and further lowers the barrier to entry.
…Xi’s agenda has dealt a serious blow to Chinese companies striving to go global, such as ByteDance. Previously, American and Chinese businesses could happily trade and invest in an almost separate sphere from China’s litany of human-rights abuses. But Xi has kicked down the wall that tenuously protected commerce from authoritarianism.
…IN CERTAIN RESPECTS, TikTok is more of a headache for Washington than any other Chinese company is—even one routinely in the political crosshairs, Huawei. The national-security case against Huawei is much more direct. The firm supplies what is known as critical infrastructure, the nuts and bolts of wireless systems. Any government would, and should, be wary that such vital communications networks could be vulnerable to potential foreign adversaries. But the equipment Huawei makes can readily be supplied by other companies from friendlier nations, such as Sweden’s Ericsson, and its gear can simply be torn out and replaced, as Britain is seeking to do.
TikTok presents a very different conundrum. For one, the app is already on millions of American smartphones. Washington’s concerns about data security in regards to China have been heightened by two recent hacks: of the credit-reporting firm Equifax in 2017, and of the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management in 2015. In both cases, security experts blame Beijing. The assumption is that Chinese authorities are compiling dossiers on U.S. citizens for unknown, but probably compromising, purposes. TikTok could be a handy device for stuffing the files with juicy new details. Even more, TikTok is in the business of content. It can just as readily act as a conduit for spreading information as collecting it—and therefore could be a propaganda tool for the Chinese state.
…The Chinese dictatorship blocks Facebook, Twitter, and other foreign social media because its leadership doesn’t have the guts to allow its people to decide what they want to say, post, or watch.
The motivation for blocking TikTok in the U.S. is much different, of course, but takes us to the same place—where the state determines what we can and cannot do on the internet. That puts the American government in the impossible position of defending our values by undermining them. That can’t be the best way to confront our fears.”