An expert in cyber security discusses the hazards posed by TikTok and the difficulties associated with prohibiting the app, prompting the question of whether the United States has the ability to do so.
Shou Zi Chew, the CEO of TikTok, appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, 2023, amidst growing calls from members of Congress to ban the Chinese-owned social media app. Reports suggest that the Biden administration is also advocating for the sale of the company. Although many state, foreign governments and some companies have already banned TikTok on work-provided phones to protect government data, a complete ban of the app raises several important questions. These include concerns about data privacy risks associated with TikTok, the potential for the Chinese government to access data collected by the app, the safety of its content recommendation algorithm, and whether an app ban is even feasible.
COLLECTING DATA THROUGH VACUUMING.
As a cyber security researcher, I have observed that every few years, a newly popular mobile app raises concerns about security, privacy, and data access. While some apps collect data to enhance user experience, most collect data to generate revenue by targeting users with ads based on the information they gather. This raises questions about the necessity of the data collected, its usage, and the measures taken to safeguard it.
The US government’s concern over TikTok stems from the Chinese government’s potential access to data from the app’s 150 million US users, as well as concerns over the algorithms used to display content. While data collection is common among apps, TikTok’s unique situation raises questions about data privacy and security.
THE INFORMATION THAT THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT POSSESSES.
Should the Chinese government obtain the data, there is a possibility that they could use it to their advantage by sharing it with companies in China for profit, similar to how U.S. companies use marketing data. Given that the Chinese government values data as power, it may take some time for them to fully comprehend the benefits it could bring. However, there are concerns about the potential risks associated with the Chinese government possessing such data. One such risk is that they could use it for spying, particularly on individuals with valuable information.
The Justice Department is currently investigating TikTok’s parent company, Byte Dance, for allegedly monitoring U.S. journalists through the app. additionally, the Chinese government has a history of using social engineering techniques to hack U.S. government agencies and corporations. Another issue that the U.S. government has raised is the possibility of algorithm bias or manipulation. As TikTok’s algorithm is not publicly disclosed, it is unclear how it operates. However, there are allegations that the algorithm may be biased, particularly towards younger users, and may be used to influence public opinion. While it is possible that such behavior is unintentional, there is concern that the Chinese government may be using or could potentially use the algorithm to manipulate people.
IS IT POSSIBLE FOR THE GOVERNMENT TO PROHIBIT THE USAGE OF AN APPLICATION?
If the federal government decides to ban TikTok, enforcing the ban for all of its 150 million current users would be a challenge. The ban would likely begin by blocking the app’s distribution through Apple and Google’s app stores. However, determined users could still find ways to download and install the app through other means.
A more extreme option would be to require Apple and Google to modify their phones to prevent TikTok from functioning. However, legal challenges, including First Amendment concerns, make it unlikely that such an effort would succeed. Ultimately, enforcing an absolute ban would be difficult.
Furthermore, even if a ban were possible, it remains uncertain how effective it would be. According to some estimates, the Chinese government has already obtained personal information on a significant portion of the U.S. population through various methods. While a ban may limit future damage, the Chinese government has already amassed a substantial amount of data. Additionally, the demand for personal data, which the Chinese government and other entities with money have access to, highlights the need for stronger data privacy regulations.
DO YOU FACE ANY POTENTIAL DANGERS?
SHOULD YOU BE CONCERNED AS AN AVERAGE USER?
It’s unclear what data Byte Dance is collecting and whether it could harm individuals. However, those in positions of power, whether politically or within a company, may face the greatest risks as their data and information could be exploited to access other data or potentially compromise their organizations. What worries me most about TikTok is its algorithm that determines the videos users see and how it could adversely affect vulnerable groups, especially young people. Regardless of any ban, families should have discussions about TikTok and other social media platforms and their potential negative impact on mental health. These conversations should focus on identifying whether the app is leading you down an unhealthy path.