TikTok, Data Security, and Dueling Economies

Aug 28, 2020

The social media platform TikTok is gaining popularity across the internet, but also raising privacy and national security concerns.

TikTok is a service that allows users to share videos ranging from a few seconds to a minute with each other. Like many such platforms, it has a dedicated app. But it has one crucial difference. David Gunkel, professor of media studies at Northern Illinois University, explained:

Credit pixabay

“It was really the first Chinese app to gain international saturation and be adopted worldwide," he said, "and as a result it caught attention of a lot of people.” 

David Gunkel is a professor of media studies at Northern Illinois University

Much of Gunkel’s work focuses on information technology. He warned that there’s always a certain cost to these services.

“When the service is free, you’re the product," he said, "and they are making money. Their business model is basically leveraging the connections and the data that you supply them by using their service.”

The way in which these products handle data is governed by the corporate law in the country in which their parent company is based. TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, is based in Beijing, and some worry their data could be turned over to the Chinese government. But Gunkel said there’s no current evidence of action against U.S. citizens.

“There is some evidence that they have turned over some data on Hong Kong users to the Chinese government," he said, "but TikTok tells us and assures us that all data from U.S. users is housed in U.S.-based servers and the jurisdiction for the app is in Singapore, not in China.”

But the potential for ByteDance to do so still raises concerns. NIU Political Science Professor Ches Thurber explained.

Ches Thurber is a political science professor at Northern Illinois University.
Credit Northern Illinois University

“The fact that it is so popular and on so many people’s phones in the United States," he said, "does make the security concerns that the U.S. Government is worried about all the more serious.” 

That’s why President Trump said he signed an executive order against ByteDance, pressuring it to spin-off or sell it's U.S. business interest in TikTok. Thurber said the app’s prominence also makes it a useful political tool for Trump.

“As opposed to other things that are going on in the conflict with China, things like closing down a consulate in Houston," he said, "this is something that is grabbing people’s attention and I think the President wants people to be paying attention to this idea of his being tough on China right now.” 

But the approaches -- and outcomes -- to this confrontation could vary.

“My guess," Thurber said, "is that the win-win solution for both sides is some type of sale of TikTok’s U.S. business to an American company such as Microsoft."

On the other hand, Trump could take more aggressive economic action against ByteDance. Thurber said one possible response by China could be harmful.

“By going back to the types of tariffs that we saw back in 2018-2019," he said, "that really hit Illinois businesses hard and especially Illinois farmers.” 

Professor Gunkel said “de-platforming” TikTok is another possible course of action. This would require Google and Apple to agree not to carry TikTok on their storefronts, thus making the app more obscure. Gunkel said China is not likely to retaliate by banning U.S. apps, since they see comparatively less use domestically. But there is concern about other China-based apps.

“Not only is TikTok being scrutinized by the U.S. Government," said Gunkel, "but also WeChat, which is utilized by a lot of Chinese nationals living in the U.S. because it’s the best way for them to keep in contact with family and friends at home.” 

In turn, Gunkel said, restricting those apps in the United States has the potential of disproportionately affecting Chinese expatriates and immigrants. 

Trump’s executive order, if unchallenged, would effectively ban TikTok’s U.S. operations by September 15th.  ByteDance is suing the U.S. Government, arguing that it has been denied due process that would permit it to argue against it being a national security threat. The result of this lawsuit, and how it will affect the greater economic conflict between the United States and China, remains uncertain.