After India banned short-video app TikTok, along with other Chinese apps that it said threaten its “sovereignty and integrity”, the app is now facing increasing scrutiny from other countries that have raised concerns over its data sharing and security risks.
The US and Australia are among the countries that have warned against the security risks of TikTok and accused the app of sharing data with the Chinese government. The company maintains that it has never and will never share user data with Beijing.
In the meantime, in India, where its millions of users can no longer access the app, the company is still dealing with regulatory scrutiny.
The government has sent questions to Chinese companies, including TikTok owner ByteDance, about their content and practices. The Information Technology Ministry asked the companies if they acted at the behest of any foreign government, censored content or lobbied influencers, according to Reuters.
TikTok said it was working to respond to the ministry’s queries and that it complied with all Indian laws, adding that users’ data security and privacy were its top priorities, the report added.
Despite having a global user base, TikTok is finding itself in a vulnerable position due to its Chinese roots, as more and more countries rebuke Beijing for its growing aggressiveness. The US has been vocal about the need to “collectively respond” to the challenge from the Chinese Communist Party.
Experts also pointed out that apart from the data security aspect, TikTok’s links to China could also be a reason for the increased scrutiny of the app, especially after the Covid-19 outbreak.
“In the current Covid-19 world order, countries are seeing heightened aggression from China. The aggression is not just military, but diplomatic and technological as well,” Sriparna Pathak, Assistant Professor and Assistant Dean in the Jindal School of International Affairs, told HuffPost India.
Tech companies in China, she said, have a very opaque relationship with the Chinese government. “The Chinese government has a lot of powers over its technology companies and expects them to comply with censorship demands or efforts to track down suspected spies or dissidents.”
The app is under a national-security review by the US government through the Committee on Foreign Investment after concerns were raised that it was censoring content to comply with Chinese government requests, The Wall Street Journal said.
Varaprasad Sekhar Dolla, professor at Centre for East Asian Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, told HuffPost India that some of the reasons why TikTok is in the limelight are China’s handling of Covid-19, the National Security Law in Hong Kong — which has been condemned by countries like US and UK for destroying the territory’s autonomy— and China’s assertiveness vis-a-vis India and South China Sea.
China has open conflicts with several countries and has become more aggressive in its territorial claims in recent months. India’s decision to ban the apps came after Indian and Chinese troops clashed at Galwan in eastern Ladakh last month. Beijing has also called the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan’s Trashigang district a “disputed territory” now, while Thimphu maintains that the area has never come up during boundary talks between the two countries.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also accused China of “bullying” and instigating territorial disputes. Beijing has impeded commercial activity such as fishing or mineral exploration by countries in the South China Sea.
Given China’s aggression on multiple fronts, Pathak said that countries have fathomed that China will also utilise technology and data collection to its own advantage and TikTok, therefore, is seen as an important tool for data collection.
Facing scrutiny, ByteDance is now planning to separate TikTok from its Chinese operations, but experts said it will have little impact. In May, ByteDance hired Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive, as the chief executive of TikTok. “Restrictions on content can be effected and information can be shared from anywhere in the world,” Dolla said.
However, the calls for a ban on TikTok are not just retaliation, but actually self-preservation, Pathak said. These are defensive steps by countries because cyber warfare is an important component of China’s three warfare strategy — which also includes psychological and legal warfare — and therefore, data security is pertinent, she added.
US says “looking at” ban
The US has welcomed India’s decision on Chinese apps and said it is also considering a similar ban. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday said Washington is “looking at” banning Chinese social media apps, including TikTok. When asked about Americans downloading the app, Pompeo told Fox News, “Only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”
In a statement issued after Pompeo’s remarks, TikTok said it is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy in the US. “We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users. We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”
US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien also said that China will lose “a big tool” of espionage and surveillance if TikTok is banned by America and European countries. He confirmed to Fox News Radio that the Donald Trump administration was “very seriously taking a look” at TikTok, WeChat and some other Chinese apps.
“They are getting all of your personal, private data, your most intimate data. They are getting to know who your friends are, who your parents are. They can map all your relationships,” O’Brien added, according to PTI.
“All the information is going straight to the massive supercomputers in the cloud in China.”
The Wall Street Journal explained the US government’s concerns with TikTok. Officials are concerned that the Chinese government is potentially building a vast database of information that could be used for espionage, it quoted Susan Ariel Aaronson, a professor at George Washington University, as saying. An example, she said, is identifying US government employees who might be susceptible to blackmail.
TikTok is also one of several apps that was accessing data on users’ clipboard data on iOS devices without consent. The app said it introduced the move to stop people spamming the platform by copying and pasting the same content, according to BBC. It added that the feature was disabled through an app update on 27 June and it was never enabled on Android phones.
Scrutiny in Australia and penalty in South Korea
Another country where officials have called for a ban on TikTok is Australia. Senator Jim Molan has said TikTok was being “used and abused” by the Chinese government. Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged the public to be mindful of the type of apps they use and conscious of the data they are sharing with apps including TikTok and WeChat, according to The Wall Street Journal.
TikTok wrote to Australian MPs in a bid to allay their concerns. The company reaffirmed that it is “independent” and not aligned with any government, political party or ideology. TikTok Australia’s general manager Lee Hunter also said in the letter that users’ data is secure and has never been provided to the Chinese government.
Hunter said that TikTok is being used by some as a “political tool” as tensions continue to rise between Australia and China.
The Guardian said that it is understood the app will be scrutinised by the Australian Senate’s investigation into foreign influence through social media and the committee will send questions to the company this month.
Even with Australia, Pathak said China is unleashing diplomatic and economic aggression and it could very well use data from Australia for cyber warfare, which is the possible next step China will take along with diplomatic and economic aggression.
Meanwhile, South Korea has fined the app for mishandling children’s data. BBC reported that Korea Communications Commission said TikTok collected data of children under the age of 14 without the consent of legal guardians.
The Chinese firm also failed to inform users that personal data was transferred overseas, the Korean media watchdog added, according to BBC.
“We hold ourselves to very high standards on data privacy, and work to continuously improve and strengthen our standards,” TikTok spokesperson said in response.
Companies also warn against TikTok
Wells Fargo has also banned TikTok from company devices over what it said are concerns about security. “Due to concerns about TikTok’s privacy and security controls and practices, and because corporate-owned devices should be used for company business only, we have directed those employees to remove the app from their devices,” a statement from the company read, according to CNN.
Amazon last week asked its employees to delete TikTok, only to backtrack later. In its email, The New York Times said, Amazon said employees must delete the app from any devices that “access Amazon email” because of security risks. Later, Amazon said there’s no change in its policies with regard to TikTok and the email was sent in error.
What TikTok is planning
The company has reportedly decided to take steps to distance itself from China. ByteDance is considering changing the corporate structure of the app and there are discussions to establish a headquarters outside of China, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing a person familiar with the company’s thinking.
Even though ByteDance is trying to distance itself from China, the fact remains that it is a security threat because of its information collection capabilities, Pathak said. Irrespective of the steps taken by TikTok, countries won’t get over the security concerns of the app, she added.