People are easy to dupe. Give us something for free and we will open the door to just about anything in return, including our most sensitive family, health, and financial information.
The ancient Greeks knew something about the human psyche when they built a massive wooden horse and put it outside the enemy gates at Troy. Unsuspecting Trojans marveled at the gift and ushered it inside unexamined. Hidden in the horse were the Greek men of war who emerged to sack the city.
The Chinese know something about human nature too.
TikTok is China’s Trojan horse.
Enwrapped in millions of comedic, cute, and catchy little videos, TikTok has slipped in deftly under our defenses and found a home behind America’s security walls. It is a free, easy-to-use app taking the world by storm, one naive user at a time. It was the most popular iPhone app download in 2021 and the most popular overall app downloaded globally in 2020 and 2021. There are over 78.7 million U.S. users, with a projected 90 million users in 2023.
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, one of China’s most valuable private companies. As an app, its lofty mission – it calls itself “the leading destination for short-form mobile videos with a mission to inspire creativity and bring joy” – seems quite benign. But that belies its corporate character. Most private companies in China come under direct or indirect control of the Chinese government, which is notoriously secretive and opaque on ownership and operational details.
TikTok seems to be no different. Its algorithm is at once simple and sinister. Download the app on your smartphone and you are connected to millions of viewers across the world – very simple. Download the app on your smartphone and you have given China access to all your data – very sinister.
This opens a treasure trove of data on millions of Americans for the Chinese government to use whenever and however they choose. And history shows they use that data for nefarious purposes.
Many cybersecurity experts believe the Chinese government intends TikTok as a propaganda or censorship tool or to somehow blackmail users. This is especially ominous for today’s millennials and Gen Zs, who are the next generation of American leaders.
Over the past three years, TikTok has come under the scrutiny of both Congress and the Executive Branch. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) opened an investigation in 2019 and Democratic and Republican senators asked the Director of National Intelligence for a review of the company’s practices.
Citing national security concerns, President Trump first asked ByteDance to divest its ownership in 2020, and later imposed a ban on TikTok if it was not sold to an American firm within 45 days of the executive order. Microsoft and Oracle both engaged in serious discussions to buy the company, but there was staunch resistance from TikTok’s Chinese leadership, which reportedly did not want the company’s algorithms or AI technology to fall into foreign – American – hands.
Later, TikTok filed a series of federal lawsuits against the Trump Administration, amounting to a stay in the company’s operations. When President Biden took office, he issued an executive order in June 2021 reversing the Trump ban on TikTok and mandating a Commerce Department review into the national security ramifications. That review has not prompted any further U.S. action against the company, which continues to operate unfettered today.
FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr has become a latter-day Paul Revere. He recently tweeted: “TikTok is not just another video app. That’s the sheep’s clothing. It harvests swaths of sensitive data that new reports show are being accessed in Beijing. I’ve called on @Apple & @Google to remove Tik Tok from their app stores for its pattern of surreptitious data practices.” That warning, thus far, has fallen on deaf ears.
Implications for Facebook
TikTok’s battle for social media primacy presents both challenge and opportunity for Facebook, its main competitor. To be sure, Facebook has its own share of problems: layoffs; poor morale; investigations by regulators in Europe and the U.S.; multi-state litigation; privacy issues; and more. Facebook has been eclipsed by TikTok as the app that users spend the most time with at 850 minutes per month.
But TikTok’s foreign ownership – and indeed its practices – may yet be its own undoing.
Recently, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, took down a network of fake accounts from China that sought to interfere in American politics ahead of the November elections. If Facebook can distinguish its privacy and security practices from TikTok, among others, that should earn plaudits from U.S. security agencies who should be concerned – very concerned. Whether that is enough to save the company from the raging competition from Beijing or further regulatory action remains to be seen.
What the U.S. Should Do
As the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Congress, and the Justice Department continue to scrutinize Big Tech leaders including Facebook, Google, and Amazon, they should not lose sight of the serious national security issues presented by TikTok, especially during election season.
American policymakers and regulators should also keep in mind TikTok’s marketplace realities. According to Influencer Marketing Hub tracking TikTok statistics:
- It has the highest engagement rate per post of any social media;
- It boasts over 1 billion monthly active users and is the most popular social media app for American kids and teens;
- 61 percent of American Tik Tok users are women;
- 80 percent of its revenue comes from China;
- It earned $19 billion in gross profit in 2020.
When it comes to TikTok, millions of Americans have been laughing, dancing, and singing along with the popular and entertaining videos.
But we should not overlook what is actually happening under our very noses. In America’s simple, silly, and sublime desire for endless entertainment, we are literally dancing with the enemy.
Adonis Hoffman is CEO of The Advisory Counsel, Inc. He is a member of The Media Institute’s Board of Trustees and First Amendment Advisory Council. He is a former chief of staff and senior legal advisor at the FCC and served in legal and policy positions in the U.S. House of Representatives. He has also served as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. This article appeared in The Hill. See Mr. Hoffman’s CNN interview about TikTok.