TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, amid a chorus of calls from members of Congress for the federal government to ban the Chinese-owned video social media app and reports that the Biden administration is pushing for the company’s sale. The federal government, along with many state and foreign governments and some companies, has banned TikTok on work-provided phones. This type of ban can be effective for protecting data related to government work. But a full ban of the app is another matter, which raises a number of questions: What data privacy risks does TikTok pose? What could the Chinese government do with data collected by the app? Is its content recommendation algorithm dangerous? And is it even possible to ban an app?
Every few years a new mobile app that becomes popular raises issues of security, privacy and data access. Apps collect data for several reasons. Sometimes the data is used to improve the app for users. However, most apps collect data that the companies use in part to fund their operations. This revenue typically comes from targeting users with ads based on the data they collect. The questions this use of data raises are: Does the app need all this data? What does it do with the data? And how does it protect the data from others?
If most apps collect data, why is the U.S. government worried about TikTok? First, they worry about the Chinese government accessing data from its 150 million users in the U.S. There is also a concern about the algorithms used by TikTok to show content.
Data in the Chinese Government’s Hands
If the data does end up in the hands of the Chinese government, the question is: How could it use the data to its benefit? The government could share it with other companies in China to help them profit, which is no different than U.S. companies sharing marketing data. The Chinese government is known for playing the long game (and for vying for U.S. companies’ confidential information), and data is power, so if it is collecting data, it could take years to learn how it benefits China.
One potential threat is the Chinese government using the data to spy on people, particularly people who have access to valuable information. The Justice Department is investigating TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, for using the app to monitor U.S. journalists. The Chinese government has an extensive history of hacking U.S. government agencies and corporations, and much of that hacking has been facilitated by social engineering – the practice of using data about people to trick them into revealing more information.
The second issue that the U.S. government has raised is algorithm bias or algorithm manipulation. TikTok and most social media apps have algorithms designed to learn a user’s interests and then try to adjust the content so the user will continue to use the app. TikTok has not shared its algorithm, so it’s not clear how the app chooses a user’s content.
The algorithm could be biased in a way that influences a population to believe certain things. There are numerous allegations that TiKTok’s algorithm is biased and can reinforce negative thoughts among younger users, and be used to affect public opinion. It could be that the algorithm’s manipulative behavior is unintentional, but there is concern that the Chinese government has been using or could use the algorithm to influence people.
Can the Government Ban an App?
If the federal government comes to the conclusion that TikTok should be banned, is it even possible to ban it for all of its 150 million existing users? Any such ban would likely start with blocking the distribution of the app through Apple’s and Google’s app stores. This might keep many users off the platform, but there are other ways to download and install apps for people who are determined to use them. A more drastic method would be to force Apple and Google to change their phones to prevent TikTok from running, but this effort could be challenging from a legal perspective, including in terms of First Amendment concerns. The bottom line is that an absolute ban will be tough to enforce.
There are also questions about how effective a ban would be even if it were possible. By some estimates, the Chinese government has already collected personal information on at least 80 percent of the U.S. population via various means. A ban might limit the damage going forward to some degree, but the Chinese government has already collected a significant amount of data. The Chinese government also has access – along with anyone else with money – to the large market for personal data, which fuels calls for stronger data privacy rules.
Ultimately, it is unclear what data ByteDance is collecting and whether it can harm an individual. The more significant risks of TikTok are likely being posed to people in power – whether it is political power or within a company. Their data and information could be used to gain access to other data or potentially compromise the organizations they are associated with, including to gain a competitive advantage.
Doug Jacobson is a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Iowa State University. (This article was initially published by The Conversation.)