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21 July 2020

Is TikTok really as much of a security threat as Huawei?

The social media app is the latest target of parliament's China hawks, but are their concerns backed up by evidence?

By Oscar Williams

In February, the social media app TikTok launched a recruitment drive in Europe. The network, which is owned by the Chinese firm ByteDance, was looking to place experienced lobbyists into a series of new roles in London, Paris, Berlin and Brussels. Facing a national security review in the US, the company sought staff who could build bridges with politicians across the Atlantic. 

At the time, the company had only been mentioned in parliament a handful of times. When it was discussed, it was mostly in relation to concerns about child safety. But, just six months later, TikTok is now under scrutiny from an increasingly influential contingent of Tory backbenchers, some of whom are pushing for an outright ban.

In Monday’s Times the former Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith, buoyed by recent victories over the government on Huawei and Hong Kong, called for the network to be blocked due to its proximity to “Chinese intelligence services”. “There are real serious concerns, as big as with Huawei, over the role that they play,” he told the newspaper.

Putting aside the significant free speech implications of a ban, is it really true that an app widely used by teenagers to post short, mostly lighthearted videos could pose a similar risk to the world’s largest provider of telecoms equipment?

There were three principle concerns about Huawei. Politicians feared that if the company was given too large a role in telecoms networks, the Chinese government could compel it to spy on citizens, conduct corporate espionage and even switch off critical infrastructure that may one day depend on 5G. TikTok is unlikely to become a repository of sensitive intellectual property any time soon; nor will major infrastructure projects come to depend on it. It is primarily the privacy of its users, then, that concerns policymakers.

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ByteDance has sought to emphasise TikTok’s independence from Beijing. The product was withdrawn from Hong Kong’s app stores earlier this month, and its users’ data is stored outside of China. The former Disney executive Kevin Mayer became TikTok’s chief executive in May. In a letter to the Indian government, which has since banned the app, he said that the company wouldn’t hand over data to Beijing. 

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A spokesperson for the company added: “We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users. TikTok UK user data is stored in the US and Singapore and we have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.” He added that “there is zero truth” to “accusations” that the app presents a danger to Britain.

Nevertheless, security experts are concerned that TikTok, like Huawei, would have no choice but to give into Chinese data requests. China lacks an independent courts system through which the company could appeal such a decision, and, as Alan Woodward, a professor of cyber security at Surrey University, notes, the fact that the data isn’t stored in China may be immaterial: “We all know how pressure can be applied back at the [Chinese] office.”

TikTok differs from encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp or Signal in that, while it has a chat function, few are likely to use it to send information that would be of great value to intelligence agencies. But what appears to concern parliament’s China hawks, Silicon Valley executives and the Trump administration, which is considering a potential US ban, is the speed at which TikTok has grown. 

In the 12 months leading up to November 2019, the app was downloaded an estimated 750 million times – 35 million times more than Facebook, 300 million more than Instagram and 450 million more than YouTube. The proliferation of the US tech giants and their subsequent expansion into other markets – in Facebook’s case, dating, shopping and banking – has given rise to fears about what TikTok could become if younger generations shun American rivals to adopt it. 

Even Twitter, which failed to keep pace with Facebook or Google and provides only one core product, has become extraordinarily influential. Tweets move markets, unveil new government policies and have been used by some hostile actors in an attempt to sway elections. It’s not difficult, therefore, to see why a new social media app, owned by a company accused of spreading propaganda on behalf of the Chinese state, is considered a threat by British and American politicians. While TikTok could not, as Huawei’s critics feared, be used to manipulate critical infrastructure, it could itself become a part of the digital communications systems upon which billions of people around the world depend.

Despite these concerns, experts such as Woodward fear that anti-China sentiment, driven by Beijing’s approach to Hong Kong and handling of Covid-19, is detracting from what should be an objective security appraisal of TikTok and other Chinese companies.

“We now seem to be adopting a position that anything which is Chinese is bad,” he says. “I’m not sure that’s the most helpful policy if we want to keep a dialogue going with China.” With large numbers of Western products and technologies manufactured in China, he says, “we’re going to have to keep doing business with them, whether you like it or not”.