The UK may become the latest country to ban the use of TikTok on official government devices, joining the EU, US and Canada. What will this mean for the future of the app?
TikTok needs no introduction.
The social media platform took the world by storm in 2019, when it became the world’s most downloaded app.
Today, it has one billion active users across the globe. But a new set of bans is threatening the app’s global reputation.
“We, the FBI, do have national security concerns about the app. Its parent company is controlled by the Chinese government.”Christopher Wray, FBI Director, CNN
Last December, American lawmakers put forward a proposal to ban all federal employees from using TikTok on government devices.
They cited national security fears. There were concerns that the Chinese Communist Party might use TikTok to spy on US citizens, and that the app’s China-based parent company – ByteDance – would censor content seen by American users of the app.
“It’s extraordinary, obviously, the degree to which China in particular – but they’re not the only ones obviously – they’re developing frameworks for collecting foreign data.”Avril Haines, US director of National Intelligence, CNN
At the time TikTok was banned on some US government devices.
Then, the news about security concerns went quiet for a few months. That was until February…
“Tonight, growing calls from lawmakers to ban TikTok due to national security concerns and it comes as government agencies have just 30 days to remove the video sharing app from all federal devices.”CBS News
The US made true on its promise to ban all government employees from using the app on official networks. And that triggered a slew of international responses.
The European Union banned the app’s use on staff devices, and at least 5 governments have followed suit – including Canada, Australia and the UK.
“We recognise that China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests. A challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism.”Rishi Sunak
These aren’t the first countries to introduce restrictions around TikTok. India banned the platform in 2020, claiming that ByteDance was secretly transmitting user data to servers outside of India.
But now, as more governments ban their staff from using the app – and tensions between China and the West are at a high – the question about how TikTok treats its users’ data is under scrutiny.
So what are government concerns about TikTok data? And what will these bans mean for the future of the app?
Concerns about TikTok’s use of data are not unjustified.
“We published a story saying that we knew that bite dance a Bytedance team called the internal audit and risk Control Department had tracked the specific location of individual U.S citizens for a purpose that didn’t have to do with advertising or serving them content in the app now.”Forbes
Back in December, Forbes journalist Emily Baker-White revealed that TikTok used location data to monitor her, in order to identify her sources within ByteDance.
After an internal investigation, ByteDance admitted that staff in China and the US accessed user data inappropriately.
It was a bombshell revelation – but it’s not the first time that a social media company has behaved in this way.
“This is not the only time a tech company has used an app to track a journalist, we know that Facebook did it and we know that Uber did it. In both situations it was a big deal when it happened and the companies ended up paying dearly for their use of this tracking technology”Forbes
The real concern – the one that has triggered government bans – is about the Chinese government. Is the Communist Party monitoring TikTok data?
ByteDance maintains that it doesn’t share its data with the government. And the Chinese foreign ministry has also denied wrongdoing.
“The United States – the world’s number one superpower – is so afraid of a mobile phone application – that young people like so much – that they completely lack any self confidence. We firmly oppose the US’s wrong approach of overstretching the concept of national security.”Mao Ning, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson
While there’s currently no clear evidence of government spying, international intelligence agencies have identified “risks around the safety of sensitive information” when it comes to TikTok’s use of data.
Chinese law also requires companies – including big tech firms – to assist intelligence services when asked to do so. This means personal user information could be shared with the government.
TikTok is working hard to tackle these fears and preserve its reputation. It has said it would not provide data to the Chinese government if asked, and is taking other measures to protect user data.
“On Wednesday the social network unveiled a new security regime dubbed Project Clover that will see it store European user data locally, starting this year as part of the plan it will open new data centres in Ireland and Norway.”Reuters
But, for now at least, many governments are erring on the side of caution.
There’s a big difference between a government banning the use of an app on official devices, and a blanket ban for all users.
In the US, some members of congress have expressed support for a total ban of TikTok, with one member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee calling the app a “spy balloon in your phone”.
But others have argued that a ban would go against freedom of speech and the First Amendment.
If TikTok was blocked for its 130 million American users, that could be an existential threat to the company’s bottom line.
Next month, TikTok’s chief executive will defend his company at a US congressional hearing. The outcome might just decide the future of the world’s most disruptive app.
Today’s story was written and mixed by Patricia Clarke, with additional research by Rhys James.