Fears that TikTok will be used for PRC influence operations are growing in concert with the app’s influence and success, and they won’t be easy to mitigate.
Last week FBI director Christopher Wray told a US House Homeland Security Committee hearing that the FBI had national security concerns about TikTok, including the potential for it to be used to collect data on US users and concerns about how its recommendation algorithm could be used in influence operations. In a first, Wray also expressed concerns the TikTok app could grant the Chinese company the “opportunity to potentially technically compromise personal devices”.
There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the platform. Last month Forbes reported that TikTok’s China-based parent company ByteDance planned to use the app to monitor the location of specific US citizens without their knowledge or consent. This monitoring effort was allegedly led by Bytedance’s Internal Audit and Risk Control department, the team that investigates potential misconduct by current and former employees. Forbes alleges that in at least two cases “the Internal Audit team also planned to collect TikTok data about the location of a U.S. citizen who had never had an employment relationship with the company”. Read more: TikTok Parent ByteDance Planned To Use TikTok To Monitor The Physical Location Of Specific American Citizens
It’s hard to know what to make of this report as it’s light on details and it’s not even clear that the monitoring even took place. But perhaps the most concerning aspect of the Forbes article was that TikTok didn’t explicitly deny the allegation and instead issued a “non-denial denial“.
Then there are concerns apps like TikTok could be used to harvest citizen data in bulk. In June we covered TikTok’s efforts to mitigate these concerns by securing user data in US-based Oracle data centres before – the company’s so-called “Project Texas” — and our take was that isolating US user data will be hard. Read more: Inside Project Texas, TikTok’s Big Answer To US Lawmakers’ China Fears
Then again, the US data ecosystem is such a free-for-all that taking advantage of TikTok’s data probably wouldn’t get the PRC anything it can’t get already. There are tens, potentially hundreds, of Chinese analytics companies that have code in the background of many of today’s mobile applications. The Chinese government doesn’t need TikTok’s data.
The company is trying to allay concerns about user data access, and it will at least have some success there. However, it’s in a real bind when it comes to influence operations. Proving that the platform is resistant to political manipulation will be extremely difficult.
Ultimately, the more successful TikTok is the greater the national security risk it will pose in the minds of US lawmakers, especially given doubts that its recommendation algorithm can be effectively audited. The app is already demonstrating real world influence, and it’s growing.
Fergus Ryan, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the author of several reports on TikTok, Chinese censorship and propaganda told that TikTok is not just mirroring societal trends but is “creating things”.
“This is not a crazy idea,” he says. “It’s been true of every other social media platform so why wouldn’t it be true of TikTok, especially as it is eating into the market share of all these other social media platforms?”
Ryan pointed to TikTok as a factor in the success of the Hollywood movie Minions: The Rise of Gru, telling the movie was totally “a TikTok phenomenon”.
At time of writing the movie had taken USD$937m in box office, with the #minions hashtag eclipsing 17bn views on TikTok.
At some level, Ryan pointed out, the Biden administration already recognises the importance of TikTok — in March it invited TikTok influencers to receive a White House briefing on the war in Ukraine. Read more: The White House is briefing TikTok stars about the war in Ukraine
Last week, the Department of Justice announced that two Russian nationals had been arrested for running a large ebook piracy website, Z-library. Read more: Two Russian Nationals Charged with Running Massive E-Book Piracy Website
TikTok was at least partially responsible for the popularity of Z-library. In a letter to the Office of the US Trade Representative addressing piracy, The Authors Guild included a statement from ‘a group of romance writers’ that specifically addressed the impact of TikTok:
As a group, 2021 saw an aggressive wave of piracy, particularly via Zlibrary [sic]. Zlibrary has been a problem for years. But what made 2021 particularly bad was that TikTok behaved like jet fuel on the flames. Every month saw a new TikTok video along the lines of: “Never pay for another book! Find them here on Zlibrary.” And these videos saw hundreds of thousands of views. In the past, we could at least serve Google a search term takedown, which meant that anyone searching “download TITLE by author” might not find Zlibrary. But with TikTok acting as Zlibrary’s free and constant billboard, we have completely lost control of the conversation.
TikTok is also growing its reach in perhaps unexpected ways — it is also being used as a search engine, for example.
Given that TikTok’s inner workings are opaque to users and creators, it is impossible from the outside to know if topics are being secretly boosted or suppressed. Oracle is reportedly auditing TikTok’s algorithms to ensure they aren’t being manipulated by Chinese authorities. This can only inspire so much confidence — the observability of machine learning-based systems is notoriously fraught. Read more: Scoop: Oracle begins auditing TikTok’s algorithms
We think TikTok knows it has exposure here. When it posts about its growing influence it focuses on creators, culture, music, entertainment, and brands. Read more: New studies quantify TikTok’s growing impact on culture and music
This makes sense, but we can’t help wondering if it’s deliberately avoiding any mention of ‘town squares’ and ‘public discourse’, both terms that are regularly associated with other forms of social media. Read more: The Ruin of the Digital Town Square
Summing up, we think lawmakers need to keep their eye on the ball here and worry about TikTok’s political and cultural influence – and its susceptibility to manipulation — more than the risks it may pose to device and user data security.