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Should the U.S. fear TikTok?

This photo illustration shows the TikTok logo reflected in an image of the US flag, in Washington, DC, on March 16, 2023. - China urged the United States to stop "unreasonably suppressing" TikTok on March 16, 2023, after Washington gave the popular video-sharing app an ultimatum to part ways with its Chinese owners or face a nationwide ban. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)
This photo illustration shows the TikTok logo reflected in an image of the US flag, in Washington, DC, on March 16, 2023. - China urged the United States to stop "unreasonably suppressing" TikTok on March 16, 2023, after Washington gave the popular video-sharing app an ultimatum to part ways with its Chinese owners or face a nationwide ban. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

150 million Americans use TikTok for things like dance challenges, makeup tutorials and cooking videos.

The U.S. is considering banning the hugely popular video-sharing app TikTok, over concerns that its Chinese ownership poses a threat to national security.

Today, On Point: Should the U.S. fear TikTok?


Emily Baker-White, technology reporter and senior writer at Forbes. One of a group of U.S. journalists TikTok’s parent company ByteDance spied on in 2022. (@ebakerwhite)

Jim Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. (@james_a_lewis)

Baedri Nichole, TikTok creator. Founder and owner of Coco’s Confectionary Kitchen, a home bakery business. (@backinthekitchenwithbae)

Interview Highlights

On the federal government's fears about TikTok

Emily Baker-White: "For years, folks in the federal government have been talking about national security risks posed by TikTok. And for the most part, they're talking about two types of things. The first, which we heard a little bit about in the intro, is a fear that TikTok is installed on 150 million phones in the United States and is collecting lots of data about the people who are using those phones.

"And the fear is that the Chinese government could use that data, could collect that data, and then use it in ways that would compromise our national security. The other sort of flavor of threat is that the Chinese government, acting through Bytedance, could subtly influence what Americans are seeing on TikTok in a way that might not be evident to us at all, but in a way that could affect our civic discourse, our sort of commercial behavior, etc., in a way that would benefit the Chinese state and potentially hurt the American state."

On the company Bytedance, which owns TikTok

Emily Baker-White: "Bytedance is a huge Chinese tech company, not necessarily unlike the way Meta and Alphabet are sort of the United States is huge tech companies and Bytedance has built dozens of apps over the years. And some of those apps operate in China, in mainland China, and some of them operate internationally. TikTok is one of their apps that took off internationally and it got so big that they formed a separate business that is just TikTok. But Bytedance and TikTok are really pretty intertwined on a day-to-day basis.

"People who are working at TikTok and people who are working at Bytedance are talking to each other all the time just to sort of make the app run. And so the fear is that because there are people who work for Bytedance who are working directly on TikTok and because a lot of those people are based in China, the Chinese government, sort of unlike the United States government, can require both its citizens and companies that that are based in China to turn over information if it's asked.

"And so a member of the Chinese government can come to your house and point a gun to your head and say, you have to give me this information that you have access to. And there's really nothing that those people and companies can do to resist that. That's just how it works.

"And so the fear is if people in China who are Chinese nationals subject to Chinese law, have access either to a bunch of American user data or have the ability through the Bytedance and TikTok software to subtly or dramatically influence what is popular on the app, what is shown to users on the app that the Chinese state could use Bytedance the entity or individual employees at Bytedance or TikTok who are residing in China to sort of influence what's going on in in the United States."

On the idea of a firewall to protect U.S. data on TikTok

Emily Baker-White: "Tiktok's plan is something that they've called internally, that they call Project Texas, and they've been working on this for over a year. I wrote my first story about Project Texas in March of last year, and the idea is that if TikTok can take U.S. user data and in fact the decision making that influences what users see in the United States, and they can make that stuff accessible only to a specific team of people who work for TikTok in the United States.

"And all the data is housed in the United States. It's managed by people in the United States. And it's so the only people who have access to it are part of this special team that they now call U.S. data services. Then they can put additional restrictions on that team, including having a duty not just to Bytedance their owner, but also to the U.S. government and having lots of oversight from sort of independent bodies. They are hoping that they can create a system where Bytedance can still own that entity, U.S. ads, but it can't have full access to its information.

"And ... TikTok's put a lot of work into this, a lot of money into this. ... I've definitely seen figures above $1 billion. And the hope is that this will create a framework that Bytedance and TikTok could use. Again, they can do the same thing in Europe. They could do the same thing really with any government that's worried about access to data internationally. And frankly, if TikTok and Bytedance could pull this off, a lot of other companies could do it too, and could then operate both in the Chinese market and in Western markets, which is sort of not a thing that many companies have been able to do because they have run into this kind of problem.

"And so if TikTok and Bytedance were able to pull this off and were able to placate legislators and everyone would feel comfortable about how the data was stored and who had access to it, it could be a really big deal. But it doesn't sound right now like legislators and regulators are going for it.

"And sort of the biggest piece of recent news about TikTok and Bytedance before the hearing was TikTok told members of the press that after years of negotiating with the U.S. government to try to come to this Project Texas agreement, the Biden administration is now threatening and saying Bytedance will have to sell TikTok or divest from TikTok or potentially face a total ban in the United States."

What is it about TikTok user data that could potentially make the U.S. vulnerable?

Emily Baker-White: "Coming in contact with a country that has the world's most expansive espionage and intelligence operation. And so China surveils all of its citizens, more than a billion people. It is present on every social media platform in China, and it has begun a very aggressive campaign to influence Western politics, American politics, by shaping information in China's favor.

"This comes on top of a long record of espionage. There's about 20 espionage instances, instant incidents a year with the Chinese. So TikTok comes at a backdrop of a country that nobody trusts. We're not the only ones. A dozen other countries are looking at Banning TikTok. So, you know, it's that background. And you can use the personal data for intelligence purposes.

"The Chinese, a few years ago in 2015, did a massive series of break ins to collect data on millions of Americans. You can use it for targeting. You can use it to think of, like targeted advertising for a commercial sense. You could use it that way for political operations. And of course, you could use it to look for people of interest, put potential agents or something. So the risks are really there when it comes to China, because we see them do it to their own people and do it to others."

On a possible ban of TikTok

Jim Lewis: "A ban is unlikely because of the First Amendment issues. The Trump administration tried a ban and courts threw it out. This administration has been a lot more careful divestiture, which is forcing Bytedance to sell TikTok. That's something we could do. But it will be hard because it's just such an expensive company. The monitoring approach might work if it wasn't TikTok monitoring itself, but one thing that we need to bear in mind is the Hill is united in its concern about China.

"And we catch the more flamboyant utterances. But every member is concerned about China and the risk of Chinese espionage if TikTok was a Brazilian company or a Swedish company. Sure, we'd have the same problems we have with any social media platform and the fact that we don't have a good privacy law in the U.S. or any privacy law, frankly, at the national level. But that's not the core of the issue. The core of the issue is Chinese ownership. We need to fix privacy in social media, but let's not conflate the two."

Related Reading

Buzzfeed News: "TikTok Owner ByteDance Used A News App On Millions Of Phones To Push Pro-China Messages, Ex-Employees Say" — "Former employees claim the company placed pieces of pro-China content in its now-defunct US news app, TopBuzz, and censored negative stories about the Chinese government. ByteDance says it did no such thing."

Los Angeles Times: "For some, TikTok is a path to riches and the American dream. With a ban, it could all disappear" — "When Lauren Wyman felt crushed under the weight of her corporate finance job in 2019, she found solace in launching a small goth and alternative clothing business."

This program aired on March 27, 2023.


Claire Donnelly Producer, On Point
Claire Donnelly is a producer at On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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