Chinese App TikTok A Risk to National Security, Says Expert

TikTok, a video-sharing app company popular among teenagers and young adults, was scrutinized by lawmakers at a subcommittee hearing on Nov. 5 over its potential risks to national security.

The China-based company claims that 60 percent of its 26.5 million monthly active users in the United States are between the ages of 16 and 24. But because TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance Technology Co., is in China, lawmakers are concerned that the company could be required to hand over its user data to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) upon request.

“We know that the Chinese government has been stealing intellectual property and technology from all over the world,” said Prof. Andrew Selepak from the University of Florida in an interview with NTD. “So, if we know that the government is already acting in this way, then I think we can be pretty confident that they’re going to find other means to do the same thing.”

TikTok application
The logo of TikTok application is seen on a mobile phone screen in this picture illustration taken on Feb. 21, 2019. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

In response to Congress opening a national security review, TikTok said in a statement that it is “not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government.”

Under China’s National Intelligence Law (NIL), any group or Chinese national must cooperate with Beijing in matters of “state intelligence work,” according to a report by Sweden-based law firm Mannheimer Swartling.

While TikTok says its data is not subject to Chinese law, NIL’s language covers organizations within and outside the country, as long as the parent company is in China.

Users Show Little Concern

We interviewed a few TikTok users at Time Square, New York, to find out whether they were worried about the potential security risks.

Bryan Medina, one of the company’s tens of millions of users, told us that he understands why people would suspect the app is potentially sharing user-data with the CCP.

“To be honest, I think that’s just a whole conspiracy,” Medina said. “I don’t think our information is getting out there like that.”

Another user Nicole McDermott trusts TikTok, and said the choice to provide information to the company is in the hands of the user.

“So if I do post something, [something] I don’t want people to see, that’s my own fault for posting it. Because anything you do, in any type of social media, it never goes away,” she said.

TikTok app
Nicole McDermott uses TikTok app at Time Square in New York, New York, on Nov. 6, 2019. (Shenghua Seng/NTD News)

But Selepak warned that this is something people should be concerned about. He told NTD that people need to consider what the private information they’re giving away on the internet would mean to them in an offline environment.

If someone is reluctant to give away information offline, then perhaps it would be best to not give it away online, he explained.

Users do have the ability to read pages of agreements when downloading an application. But, realistically, we cannot expect people to do that, he said.

“So to some extent, it is kind of the government’s responsibility to protect us from ourselves, and to regulate these different social media platforms so that we have a better understanding of what information is being taken from us and maybe even regulate how much information can be taken from us,” he said.

Sen. Hawley demanded that executives from TikTok testify under oath at the subcommittee hearing, but no executives attended.

Reuters contributed to this article.