TikTok: Threat to National Security?

By Kyle Inverso

TikTok is one of the newest social media apps to find its way into the hearts of America’s youth; but could its popularity pose a threat to the safety and privacy of those who download it?

TikTok is an app which allows its users to easily create and edit videos of themselves and share them with their followers.[1] It gained massive mainstream popularity and created an entirely new breed of celebrities who rose to fame as content creators the app, complete with their own set of paparazzi and tabloid sites.[2] If this sounds like just another story about an app blowing up, it is, to some degree. But what sets TikTok apart from other major social media apps is the fact that it is owned by a Beijing based company, ByteDance.[3]

TikTok was based in Hong Kong, which used to mean that it had guaranteed freedoms and protections from the Chinese government.[4] But on June 30, 2020, China enacted a new National Security Law in Hong Kong.[5] This law gives China the right to force ByteDance to provide user data and location information to the Chinese government, as well as other data which the app collects.[6] This is even more concerning when considering the fact that TikTok has been caught multiple times accessing user’s clipboard data; under the law, the Chinese Government would have access to that data as well.[7] TikTok has since left Hong Kong, but ByteDance is still a Chinese company, which leads many tech experts to believe that TikTok is the perfect way for the Chinese government to surveil the U.S.[8]

In response, President Donald Trump issued an executive order on August 6, 2020 which pointed out that “TikTok automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users, including Internet and other network activity information such as location data and browsing and search histories.  This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information”.[9] The executive order bans all U.S. transactions with ByteDance 45 days from its issuance.[10] Trump had every intention of fully banning the app in the U.S. but appears to have relaxed his position in recent months, allowing TikTok until September 15 to find a U.S. based buyer.[11] Microsoft appears to be the front runner to purchase the video sharing platform.[12] This saga, though, appears to be far from over.

On August 24, 2020, TikTok filed suit against the U.S., disputing President Trump’s “. . . assertion that TikTok’s ownership by the Chinese company ByteDance means the Chinese government could use it to surveil Americans. TikTok is accusing the Trump administration of denying the company due process under the Fifth Amendment when Trump signed an executive order earlier this month. . .”[13]  The language of the Hong Kong national security law, coupled with the fact that TikTok has been caught taking information from user’s clipboards, makes this claim hard to believe.

Whether or not Trump can actually ban TikTok in the U.S., and whether or not he can effectively do so, remains to be seen. If TikTok is not sold by September 15, this matter is likely to find the inside of a courtroom sooner or later.

[1] John Herrman, How TikTok is Rewriting the World, N.Y. Times (Mar. 10, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/10/style/what-is-tik-tok.html.

[2] Taylor Lorenz, How to Make It as a Paparazzo in a Pandemic? Focus on Influencers, N.Y. Times (Aug. 25, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/25/style/hollywood-fix-influencer-videos.html.

[3] Paige Leskin, Trump’s Push to Ban TikTok in the US, Explained in 30 Seconds, Business Insider (Aug. 8, 2020), https://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-tiktok-ban-us-china-explained-in-30-seconds-2020-8.

[4] Zak Doffman, Is TikTok Spying On You For China?, Forbes (July 25, 2020), https://www.forbes.com/sites/zakdoffman/2020/07/25/beware-tiktok-really-is-spying-on-you-new-security-report-update-trump-pompeo-china-warning/#740c00da4014.

[5] Grace Tsoi, Hong Kong Security Law: What is it and is it Worrying?, BBC (June 30, 2020), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-52765838#:~:text=The%20new%20law’s%20key%20provisions,sentence%20of%20life%20in%20prison&text=In%20addition%2C%20Hong%20Kong%20will,with%20a%20Beijing%2Dappointed%20adviser.

[6] Doffman, supra note 4.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Exec. Order No. 13,942, 85 Fed. Reg. 48637 (Aug. 6, 2020).

[10] Id.

[11] Leskin, supra note 3.

[12] Id.

[13] Shirin Ghaffary, The TikTok vs. Trump Battle Continues with a Lawsuit, Recode (Aug. 24, 2020), https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/8/24/21399557/tiktok-suing-trump-administration-ban-us-government-social-media.