Owned by the Beijing firm Bytedance, TikTok has been under a U.S. security review since 2020, and President Joe Biden on Sept. 15 ordered “additional national security factors” to be considered. Hannah Kelley, a research assistant for the technology and national security program at CNAS, says there’s substantial debate among policymakers on the exact nature of the threat (or if there even is one). But “the potential is a really important part of the threat analysis.”
Indeed, considerable ink has been spilled on the potential uses of TikTok that sound terrifying alongside evidence-backed issues raised about the app over the years: In 2019, TikTok ordered moderators to censor videos that Beijing didn’t like. In 2020, it collected unique identifiers on millions of users for more than a year to track online behavior without their consent—and in apparent violation of Google policies. In 2021, it began to automatically gather biometric data. And this year, an independent researcher found code allowing TikTok to log keystrokes, while others found that moderators failed to catch 90% of ads “featuring false and misleading messages about elections” on its platform.
“I think everything feels so drawn out and thorny because it’s high stakes for all involved,” Kelley said of the yearslong U.S. review, adding that whatever the Biden administration decides will likely be “a precedent-setting moment on tackling a new suite of emerging vulnerabilities.” As she and others have pointed out, digital privacy, data rights, and security issues require thinking beyond a single app.
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