TikTok, the popular video-sharing app, further strains its relationship with US national security over a recent report in Forbes. Forbes claims the Chinese company that owns TikTok, ByteDance, is using already controversial location trackers “to surveil individual American citizens, not to target ads or any of these other purposes.”
TikTok’s Tricky History With National Security
China has long been considered a “foreign adversary” by the US government, and the Chinese company TikTok has again proved to be a cause for concern. Currently the number one entertainment app on the IOS App Store, Tiktok’s influence, particularly with Gen Z, is both astounding and concerning. Over the past two years, several reports have severely damaged the company’s reputation. In 2019, the company was accused of censoring users who spoke out against alleged Chinese repression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. Allegations continued to escalate, and in 2022, Forbes claimed American employees, including those who handle sensitive user data, don’t make company decisions at all. All higher-ups allegedly report to ByteDance and its HQ in Beijing. Because of these concerns, former President Trump signed an executive order banning the app unless TikTok partially sold it to American companies. The order was never enacted and later revoked by President Biden, who is now attempting an evidence-based approach and investigation into the company.
The Forbes report claims ByteDance’s Internal Audit and Risk Control department, a team that usually manages employee misconduct and discipline, was planning to collect and use the location data of at least two US-based users who are not employees at all. Forbes was purposefully vague with the nature of these plans and how/if the company collected the data to protect whistleblowers.
Maureen Shannan, an American spokesperson, stated that TikTok has been using user IP location data – like most social media sites – to show relevant ads and have TikTok comply with their state/federal law. The company insists that US data is stored and accessed only in the US. Yet, in January of 2022, Buzzfeed News reported that Chinese employees accessed American data dozens of times, and US staff can’t even access the information without staff in China’s approval.
So Why is This Bad?
Thousands of companies have your location data right now; most even have your exact address, and location trackers aren’t inherently malicious. However, Chinese officials can use its direct access to sensitive information of politicians and journalists to retaliate against sources/whistleblowers or, as Uber did in 2017, show law enforcement and politicians a fake version of the app to evade investigations.