TikTok, the popular social media app, has found itself at the center of a storm as it admits to spying on its American users. In a recent report, TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, revealed that four of its employees in China had accessed the data of two TikTok accounts belonging to U.S. journalists. As calls to ban the app gain momentum, TikTok’s actions are set to become a major talking point in the upcoming 2024 election cycle.
A Breach of Trust
ByteDance’s internal investigation confirmed unauthorized access to user data, which is a breach of trust that TikTok was never meant to commit. This revelation has emboldened TikTok’s critics, such as Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who pushed for a bill to ban the app on U.S. government devices. While the bill still awaits approval in the House of Representatives, several states, including Texas, Louisiana, and Virginia, have already implemented their own bans.
However, it is important to note that the report does not specify the exact use of the accessed data. Contrary to popular imagination, the data was not handed over to Chinese authorities on silver platters. Instead, it appears that ByteDance employees, suspected of leaking internal information, sought to determine if they had come into contact with the journalists. Ultimately, the efforts were unsuccessful, and all those involved in the data breach were fired.
Spying Apparatus or Mere Data Access?
Senator Hawley and others have raised concerns about TikTok being a spying apparatus for the Chinese Communist Party. While evidence linking TikTok to such claims remains speculative, the unauthorized data access is a scandal in its own right. In 2019, TikTok’s U.S. team proclaimed strict data security practices, assuring users that their information was stored in the United States and not shared with ByteDance’s headquarters in China. The recent report unequivocally confirmed that this claim was false.
Moreover, previous reports have suggested that ByteDance cooperates with Chinese propaganda efforts, albeit denied by the company. Interestingly, one of these reports was authored by Emily Baker-White, one of the journalists whose data was accessed by ByteDance. This incident has given lawmakers like Senator Marco Rubio more ammunition to advocate for a nationwide TikTok ban, echoing former President Donald Trump’s unsuccessful attempt in 2020.
Double Standards in Surveillance
Senator Rubio highlights an important point when he compares TikTok’s actions to those of U.S.-based platforms. The truth is that American social media platforms have also been involved in data cooperation with U.S. intelligence agencies and have played a role in spreading positive messages abroad. Additionally, U.S. intelligence agencies have actively monitored social media posts and used data-mining techniques to gather intelligence about users. Studies have shown that this surveillance has created a “spiral of silence” effect, akin to self-censorship observed in the Chinese media.
While banning TikTok may seem like a solution, it is unlikely to make users immune to spying or external influence. In fact, a ban could potentially lead to the sale of TikTok to an American ally, like Microsoft, which has a history of cooperation with intelligence agencies. Consequently, the issues of user surveillance and manipulation would persist, albeit under a different name.
As the debate around TikTok’s data practices intensifies, it is clear that users’ privacy and the implications of unrestricted data access need to be addressed industry-wide. The story of TikTok serves as a reminder that our online activities can have far-reaching consequences, and it is crucial to stay informed about the actions of platforms that we engage with daily.