TikTok might be out of time.
After three wildly successful years on the international market — and over two billion downloads worldwide — the popular clip-sharing app is now facing a potential ban in the U.S., with officials in the Trump administration claiming its alleged ties to the Chinese government may pose a serious threat to national security.
TikTok hosts about 80 million monthly users in the U.S. alone. Users, referred to as ‘TikTokers,’ can film themselves lip-syncing to music, acting out various sketches and trends or creating some other kind of short-form original content.
In turn, the app collects information on each of these individuals, including geolocation tags, unique device identifiers and the contents of in-app messages, in order to track and predict trends in consumer behavior.
This practice, known as “data mining,” is neither illegal nor uncommon among social networking platforms. Facebook, the most popular by far, is notorious for its extensive measures in personal data collection, including making ad profiles based on users' sexual orientations, ethnicities and political/religious affiliations. It even tracks users when they’re not actively engaging with the app, according to the Washington Post.
So if data mining is the problem, why wasn’t Facebook — which also owns big industry names Instagram and Whatsapp — wiped out when it was caught leaking users’ information to third-party companies for ad revenue in 2018?
The difference is that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is based in China; a rising global power and Cold War-era rival of the U.S. with whom tensions have grown increasingly fraught in recent years.
As a result, the emergence of TikTok in mainstream American culture has officials on high alert for bad behavior. Some, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, suspect the Chinese government may be using the app to spy on American citizens.
Speaking to Fox News on July 6, Pompeo said the administration is “looking at” a ban. “With respect to Chinese apps on people’s cell phones, I can assure you the United States will get this one right too.”
Yet cybersecurity experts question whether a ban is necessary.
“I’m yet to see a documented, material threat,” one expert, Mike Thompson, told Forbes. “It’s no more than the usual bluster over a new app designed to help people connect.”
Even if surveillance rumors were 100% true, TikTok would simply not be a “good intelligence tool” for the Chinese says James Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; the kind of data being gathered would be too sparse to be considered for any strategic purposes.
With no conclusive evidence to support surveillance rumors, it seems unlikely that the app is the Trojan horse officials are making it out to be.
TikTok continues to deny any involvement with the Chinese government. As an independent subsidiary of ByteDance, TikTok neither operates nor stores data in China, according to an official statement the company released in 2019 following initial privacy concerns from the public.
TikTok has “no higher priority” than promoting a safe experience for its users, the company said on July 7. “We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”
On June 26 India became the first country to officially ban TikTok, leaving over 200 million users devastated by the loss of what had quickly grown into a cultural crowdsourcing phenomenon.
Those of us in the U.S. should hope our country doesn’t follow suit. Not just because the app is oddly entertaining, or because it kindles hope even in the bleakest of times, but because allowing the federal government to outlaw TikTok would present its own set of problems for our constitutional rights.
The U.S. government has never banned an app before, and doing so now would set a dangerous precedent for unchecked digital censorship. If policymakers have the power to ban something as widespread and seemingly innocuous as TikTok, what else could they ban? Instagram could just as easily be next, then Facebook and Twitter; all of our digital platforms, one by one — eventually we’d have nothing left to stand on, no connections left to make.
Grace Pulliam is a 19-year-old creative writing major from Zachary, LA.