Featured Article : TikTok Trouble?

28th February 2023

Following the banning of Chinese short video sharing app TikTok from EU and US government devices, plus more trouble on the way in Canada, we look at some of the reasons why.

Banned From EU Government Devices 

The European Commission recently decided to ban the TikTok app from staff phones (work and personal devices). EC staff were informed of the decision by email.  The EC’s decision led to the EU executive and the EU Council following suit and also issuing a ban of the app from all personal mobile devices that have access to corporate services.

In both cases, the ban/suspension was issued on cybersecurity grounds, i.e. to protect data and increase cybersecurity. In a statement on the European Commission’s website, for example, the reason for the ‘suspension’ of TikTok is given as “to protect the Commission against cybersecurity threats and actions which may be exploited for cyber-attacks against the corporate environment of the Commission.” 

US And India 

The EU’s is not the first government body to ban TikTok from staff phones on similar grounds. For example, in December, the U.S. Senate passed a bill banning government employees from having the TikTok app on government-owned devices. Also, in June 2020, India banned TikTok and around 300 other Chinese apps from government devices.

Calls To Ban & Investigations 

TikTok is also facing calls to ban its app in Australia and Taiwan, and the Canadian government is launching a joint federal and provincial investigation into the app.

Why The Concerns About TikTok? 

The main concerns about TikTok are:

– Owned by Chinese company ByteDance, there are worries that TikTok has close links to the Chinese state and communist party. As such, there are worries that the app could be used for data harvesting, censorship, and propaganda purposes. In the US, for example, the concerns are related to national security, given that TikTok has become hugely popular among American teenagers and young adults, who share personal information and use the app to express their opinions and ideas.

– Concerns (especially in the US) that the Chinese government could use TikTok to collect sensitive personal data on Americans, including their location, contacts, and browsing history. This data could be used for surveillance, cyber espionage and even blackmail.

– Concerns that TikTok’s content moderation practices may not be transparent or consistent, and that the app may censor content that is critical of the Chinese government or otherwise sensitive topics.

– Concerns that the TikTok app could be used to spread propaganda and misinformation to manipulate public opinion. For example, as highlighted recently by Florida Republican Senate Intelligence Committee vice chair Marco Rubio, fears that Tik Tok could “weaponize data” collected from the app and use the app to “drive narratives in society that try to influence political debate.” Similarly, in Taiwan, a key worry is that the app may be used by Beijing to spread disinformation and wage cognitive warfare.

– As highlighted by the EU, in addition to the above concerns, that data collected by TikTok could be used for state sponsored cyber attacks against the EU and the EC’s corporate environment.

– The recent concerns in Canada are reported to relate to whether valid and meaningful consent is being obtained for the collection, use and disclosure of personal information of TikTok users.

Balloons 

Relations between China and the west have worsened in recent years with accusations about state links to Chinese tech communications businesses leading to other bans, e.g. the US ban on the sale and import of new Huawei communications equipment and the UK ban of Huawei equipment in 5G networks. The real mistrust of and sanctions against Chinese communications-related companies really escalated in the Trump era in the US. The recent sighting (and shooting down) of suspected Chinese spy balloons over the US earlier this month has put the spotlight back on fears over Chinese companies and re-ignited concerns about TikTok.

What Does TikTok Say? 

In response to the recent banning of the TikTok app from European Commission devices, a TikTok spokesperson has been quoted as saying that it had not been contacted directly by the Commission, or offered an explanation for its decision, and that it believed that the move was “misguided and based on fundamental misconceptions.” The same spokesperson was also reported to have said that TikTok had contacted the EC to explain how it protects the data of the 125 million users across the EU each month.

In response to an impending investigation in Canada, TikTok has been reported as saying that the privacy and safety of users “is always a top priority” and that the investigation would be an opportunity for it to “set the record straight” about its privacy and data protection.

In the past, following the signing of an executive order (in 2020) by then president Donald Trump that would have effectively banned TikTok in the US unless its ownership was transferred to an American company, TikTok tried to comply and allay fears by announcing a partnership with Oracle and Walmart, to see the US companies take a stake in the app (which was never finalised).

Other measures that TikTok has taken in recent times to try and comply and allay fears about how it handles user data include:

– The publishing of transparency reports that detail the requests they receive from governments and law enforcement agencies for user data or content removal, in order to provide greater transparency about the platform’s policies and practices.

– In some countries, TikTok has set up local data storage facilities to comply with local regulations and data protection laws. This means that user data is stored within the country rather than being sent to servers located elsewhere.

– TikTok has also said that it has  implemented stronger content moderation policies and tools to identify and remove harmful or inappropriate content. They have also created a content moderation centre in Dublin, Ireland, to oversee content moderation efforts across Europe.

– User education has been another way TikTok has tried to protect itself. For example, it launched several educational campaigns to help users understand how to use the app safely and protect their personal information. These campaigns include videos and other resources that provide guidance on privacy and security best practices.

– TikTok has promised to provide greater transparency and oversight of its algorithm, which is used to recommend content to users, and committed to providing explanations for why certain content is recommended to users, and to give users more control over the content they see.

Overall, it could be said that TikTok has made efforts to address concerns about privacy and security in different countries. However, many critics still argue that the measures taken are not enough and that more needs to be done to protect user data and ensure the platform is not used for harmful purposes.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

The future and fortunes on TikTok in the west, and of other Chinese companies (e.g. Huawei) are inextricably linked to the political and diplomatic relations between China and the west, and there is of course, an element of competition with foreign firms. In particular, since the worsening of relations with China during the Trump era, fears of close links between the Chinese state and tech and comms companies, plus the fear that the data they have access to and collect could be weaponised against western governments and companies and that apps like TikTok could be used to influence opinion and spread disinformation have all led to TikTok’s current predicament.

China’s apparent support for Russia over the war against Ukraine is also unlikely to help the Chinese companies operating in the west and the recent spying-balloon incidents have amplified existing fears and arguments. Some have argued that the bans on TikTok won’t make users any safer as nearly all digital platforms and e-commerce sites around the world collect and buy and sell data via third parties anyway. The bans, however, are one way that governments can be seen to be plugging a potential security and privacy gap while sending a strong political message at the same time.