TikTok has been the most downloaded app globally in 2020. Although it has existed since 2018, TikTok surpassed 2 billion downloads back in April, during the apex of the new socially-distanced reality engendered by the pandemic. The ability to share and create content such as comedy skits, dance challenges, and lip-syncing clips, has appealed to various age groups around the world, especially teenagers. However, TikTok has been at the center of controversy for raising cyber security concerns not just here in the United States, but around the world.
The problem with TikTok is twofold. The first issue is the app is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance. Because ByteDance is not American-based, it does not follow U.S. federal and state consumer privacy laws. TikTok announced the data collected by American users is backed-up in Singapore, which is not subject to Chinese law. Though true, it is possible the Chinese government could pressure ByteDance to relinquish its user information.
Second, TikTok has a large accumulation of data related to the types of videos Americans watch and post. Because it has turned into an important platform for political activism, people are worried the Chinese government could influence public opinion and control speech. For instance, according to both The Guardian and The Intercept, last year, TikTok company officials told their employees to censor content considered sensitive to Beijing. TikTok claimed their policies were outdated when the reports were released. As a result of this incident, they established a “transparency center” so security and technology experts from around the world can observe their policies.
Despite TikTok’s official statement, President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order in August declaring the prohibition of all business with ByteDance. Unless ByteDance announces a plan to sell TikTok, the app will be banned on September 29th, 2020. Several American agencies and companies, such as the U.S. Army and Wells Fargo, have been proactive, requiring servicemen and employees to uninstall the app in response to these security concerns. Other countries, like India, have followed suit, banning the app altogether.
Many people, including computer security experts, believe banning the app in the United States would be an extreme course of action. Not only would it invite questions about censorship in a free country right before an election, but it would affect various companies here in the U.S. who use the platform for marketing purposes. A solution technology experts have mentioned is to implement policies for protecting consumer privacy and measures to minimize data misuse from companies around the world. Currently, with the exception of a few state laws, the responsibility of American privacy and data sharing belongs to companies such as TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter.
On September 14th, 2020, ByteDance accepted Oracle’s proposal to be their new technology provider. This means Oracle would be held accountable for protecting all user information collected through TikTok. Although this deal is pending approval by the U.S. government, this would keep businesses invested in TikTok afloat and allow up to 100 million users to continue posting creative content. Tresury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, told CNBC that the government will be reviewing the proposal this week, as their top priority is to keep American user data from the Chinese Communist Party.
Four days later, the U.S. government announced the removal of TikTok and fellow Chinese app, WeChat, from American app stores supplied by Apple and Google. Distribution, updates, and maintenance will be expelled for purchase unless the Trump administration, TikTok, and Oracle can close a deal by September 20th. Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, told Bloomberg WeChat would be shut down for practical purposes, but Americans could still use the app for payments in China and talk to loved ones overseas. He added TikTok’s official shut down is scheduled after November 12th if the deal with Oracle falls through.
On Monday, September 21st, 2020, President Trump announced his approval of the deal between Oracle and TikTok. As a result of the ongoing proposal, Oracle and Walmart will share a 20% stake in TikTok Global, a new company headquartered in the United States. ByteDance will own 80% of TikTok Global and allow Oracle to review its source code. Ceding algorithms and other technologies was not included in the deal. Allowing Oracle to review the source code is still not fool-proof as ByteDance could easily instruct the code to send data back to China in secret. Trump’s approval has postponed the ban for now, but the removal of TikTok through American app stores is still in effect. As relations between the United States and China remain tumultuous, the final outcome of the TikTok debate remains to be seen.