Is TikTok a Threat to National Security?

President Donald Trump has been trying to make a deal to either ban the extremely popular app TikTok from the United States or remove the app from the control of the Chinese Government, since July. 

Donna Dolphin, an Associate Professor of Communication, explained that the official justification of the Trump Administration for blocking or controlling the TikTok app is that it is owned and operated by the Chinese government, which is hostile to the United States.

“Because of the way the app functions, it is easily possible for the operator to access additional personal data. In other words, it is possible for the TikTok app to be used as an instrument for espionage,” said Dolphin.

Using TikTok on a personal devise is not a threat to national security, but accessing the app on a devise that also stores secure or classified communication might pose a threat. “The solution seems pretty simple, don’t use TikTok on a device that is also used for secure communication,” Dolphin said. 

Agreeably, Randall S. Abate, Professor of Political Science and Sociology, explained that there are genuine privacy and security concerns at stake in Trump’s effort to ban TikTok. “These concerns aren’t ‘traditional’ national security concerns but focus rather on data security and data privacy.”

Like other social media platforms, TikTok collects data on its users, so “the national security issue here is premised on a fear that the Chinese government may be able to access this data and potentially leverage it to engage in espionage or spread damaging misinformation,” Abate said. 

However, Dolphin cited a potential ulterior motive for the Trump Administration’s desired TikTok ban. When Trump held his first, in-person rally, after the pandemic limited gatherings, attendance was sparse although the expectation was the event had sold out. The rumor is that young people used TikTok to start a movement to reserve all the tickets so the event would not succeed, Dolphin explained, although she is unsure of the rumor’s validity. 

“The theory related to this rumor is that young people effectively demonstrated their political power and did so in a way that used the power of being digital natives and part of a youth movement. In this vein of thought, the Administration is attempting to shut down the line of communication to undermine the power of politically aware young people,” Dolphin concluded. 

Abate said that Trump was motivated to ban the app simply because of national security and privacy concerned. “[Trump’s] Executive Order last month on this matter sought to ban TikTok based on his concern that the app ‘potentially allows China to track the locations of federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage’,” said Abate. 

He further explained that Trump’s authority for this response is grounded in the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which grants the president authority to ban transactions between U.S. and foreign entities. This legal authority also provides the president with significant discretion to determine and declare “national emergencies.”

Robert Scott, Specialist Professor of Communication, explained that since people are more reliant on technologies and its services for a wide range of applications, so “Big Tech” is rapidly gaining power, bringing scrutiny on tech giants like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter, globally, leading to antitrust issues and privacy and security concerns about user data. 

Social media platforms and telecommunications companies in particular, have played a major role in this equation, bolstering concerns about espionage, the expansion of misinformation, political sabotage, and hate speech, Scott clarified. There are numerous outside nations and organizations that are closely monitored by U.S. security agencies, including the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency in Russia and Chinese tech powerhouses such as ByteDance, Tencent Holdings, and Huawei.

“The Trump administration’s concerns regarding these Chinese companies are said to primarily involve national security but are also related to ongoing strained trade relations between the two nations. There are concerns that mobile hardware from Huawei, and social apps such as ByteDance’s TikTok and Tencent’s WeChat could be used by the Chinese government to track U.S. citizens and government officials,” said Scott. 

He concluded that they could also potentially be used by agencies seeking to manipulate political elections through disinformation campaigns and hackers looking to collect personal user data, proprietary corporate secrets, and classified government or military information.

Kristen Kane, a Senior Criminal Justice and Homeland Security student, agrees with the ban on TikTok. “I agree with [Scott’s] view to ban TikTok as it creates an international risk to the country’s national security.  However, I am someone who loves the app and enjoys using TikTok,” she said. 

“I feel there are other ways to minimize these vulnerabilities, without banning the app. One of these ways is having an ally or nationally owned company partner in TikTok ownership, which has happened,” said Kane.

The ban on TikTok could promote safety as it will disallow ByteDance access into American users’ personal information, Kane acknowledged.