How Did Tiktok Become the Center of a Cybersecurity Geopolitical Debate?
TikTok was the most downloaded app worldwide in the previous year. It has reportedly more than a billion users and has continued to grow at the fastest rate among social media platforms since 2020. But now, several nations have outlawed it on official equipment, with the UK declaring late last week that it will follow the US, the EU, and New Zealand in enforcing restrictions.
Whether or not you use TikTok, its popularity has led to a lot of us watching video content that was created on the app as it spread to other platforms. In addition to general criticisms of TikTok, such as its addictiveness, mysterious algorithm, and “shoppertainment” business model, western governments have focused a lot of attention on the Chinese-owned social media company because they view the app as a security risk.
TikTok has been unable to allay concerns that have been brewing since its popularity skyrocketed five years ago, despite its insistence that user data is safe. Government representatives in the west have insisted that ByteDance’s ownership of the company puts the risk of Chinese government access to sensitive user data. Furthermore, TikTok has come under fire as geopolitical tensions between China and the US intensify.
This change could have a significant impact on the social media behemoth; according to a report from yesterday, the BBC has advised its employees to remove the app from their work-issued mobile devices, and who knows who else may follow suit. I discussed why TikTok has risen to the top of the security agenda with Dan Milmo, the global technology editor of the Guardian. That follows the headlines.
Five major events
1. Police Martin Hewitt, the head of the British police chiefs, has claimed that if the Metropolitan Police cannot restore the public’s trust, which has rapidly eroded as a result of several scandals, it has no “God-given right” to exist in its current size. Hewitt, who is retiring from law enforcement after 30 years, has stated that it will take time for the force to regain the public’s trust.
2. Strikes | Members of the largest health unions in Britain are organizing a cross-union campaign to reject the 5% pay increase that union leaders are recommending because it was significantly below inflation.
3. Climate emergency | Fiame Naomi Mata’af, the prime minister of Samoa, has made a fervent appeal for action in advance of a historic IPCC report that is anticipated to issue a scientific “final warning” on the situation. She stated that there were already instances of entire communities relocating to other nations in the Pacific. “Land loss has forced them to deal with issues of sovereignty.”
4. Relations between Russia and China | On the eve of Xi Jinping’s state visit to Moscow, his first since the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin praised Xi as a “good old friend” in a Chinese article.
5. Emergency services | The government has introduced a brand-new public warning system that will send siren-like alerts to mobile phones about situations that could endanger life, like severe flooding, wildfires, or extreme weather. Next month, a national trial is being prepared by the Cabinet Office.
In-depth: “TikTok harvests your data aggressively, but that’s pretty standard social media behavior.”
The US government has made it clear that TikTok’s owners, Beijing-based ByteDance, must sell their shares in the business or face having the video-sharing platform completely banned from entering the country. The conflict between TikTok and the US government has dramatically escalated as a result. How much of this relates to TikTok, though? What will happen after that?
What kind of security risk is it exactly?
There isn’t any concrete evidence to date that TikTok has been asked to give the Chinese government user data or that it has manipulated its algorithm to promote Chinese propaganda.
Dan notes that its practices thus far appear to be identical to those of every other social media platform: “The main argument against TikTok is that it aggressively collects user data, such as their location and likes, without their consent. On a fundamental level, however, that is pretty standard social media behavior; it is the same as everyone else’s. That being said, ByteDance acknowledged that employees had spied on journalists using their app to find the journalists’ sources, seriously jeopardizing TikTok’s reputation.
To persuade western governments that it is protecting user data, TikTok has also unveiled security plans in Europe and the US that will cost the company, respectively, €1.2 billion and $1.5 billion. Users from the US, for example, would have all of their data stored there, while users from Europe would have it stored in Norway and Ireland. Critics, however, are unconvinced that this is sufficient and assert that ByteDance ultimately needs to abide by Chinese government requirements.
How probable is a sale?
TikTok is a huge asset because of its disproportionate cultural impact and its loyal and expanding user base. Dan makes the point that it wouldn’t necessarily be easy sailing when selling.
Because TikTok owns valuable IP (intellectual property), such as its well-known recommendation algorithm that gives its For You feed such a compelling experience, some industry experts believe that the Chinese government will try to prevent a divestment of the company from its Chinese owners. Purchasing TikTok or a sizable portion of it would be fraught with complications and difficult, unanswered questions regarding how exactly it could completely detach from ByteDance.
Finding buyers with deep enough pockets will also be challenging with a potential price tag of over $50 billion for the US business alone. Companies like Snap would find it challenging to take that on, and any social media buyer would face significant antitrust concerns. When the Donald Trump administration initially attempted to force through a sale of TikTok US in 2020, Microsoft and Oracle were potential suitors; however, that process was stalled due to TikTok’s successful legal challenges. A sale might be messy if the Chinese government is involved as well.
Will there be a federal ban on it?
What the UK plans to do about TikTok is to copy what everyone else is doing, according to Rishi Sunak. The British government appears content in this instance to emulate its allies. What the government announced this week was related to actions taken by the US, Canada, Belgium, and the European Commission, according to Dan. If the US is successful in carrying out its threats, the UK will logically follow suit.
However, a nationwide ban is a very big step up from prohibiting politicians and government employees from using the app on their official cell phones. Many people now consume it regularly on social media, and “an increasing number of people’s livelihoods depend on TikTok as creators, [so] moving to ban that entirely is quite a big step and I don’t think we’re there yet,” says Dan.
It’s also important to remember that the legality of prohibiting TikTok in the US has not been determined. Despite widespread political agreement on both sides of the aisle, TikTok has previously been able to fend off pressure from the White House. There is already a precedent of legal defense there, which would make it quite difficult for Biden. They successfully sued Donald Trump’s attempts to ban the app in the US.
TikTok opens up more
The transformation of TikTok from a cultural phenomenon to a geopolitical pariah is a metaphor for the deteriorating ties between the US and the rest of the west with China. TikTok is merely the most recent point of contention regarding a much more significant issue than a video-sharing app, thanks to the spy balloons saga, escalating tensions over Taiwan, and China’s relationship with Russia.
However, TikTok has reacted to its shifting position by deciding that it is now appropriate to emerge from the shadows. It has suddenly started to engage with the public much more. Its executives communicate with journalists much more frequently, and it has been appearing before politicians on both sides of the Atlantic much more frequently to try to make its case, according to Dan. It remains to be seen if this is sufficient.
Way For Future
This hostility is not likely to end with TikTok. According to Dan, other Chinese tech companies and their goods are probably targets for western politicians. “So, who’s next is the big question. In any case, it appears that this is about China and not TikTok.