TikTok has always faced its fair share of controversy. But the extremely popular app has received greater mainstream attention following congressional calls for a national ban.
Concerns over the security of the data gathered by TikTok’s parent companies has led many lawmakers to propose bills that would protect users of the app. Some of the more extreme among these legislators like Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Senator Josh Hawley are calling for an all out ban, while others see these proposed bans as the government overstepping its bounds.
With over a billion monthly active users, the app has grown to compete with social media giants like YouTube and Facebook. This explosion in popularity, especially among kids and teens, is a leading motivator behind investigating TikTok’s data collection and algorithms.
The idea of the United States government banning TikTok began in 2020, when former President Donald Trump threatened to push a similar ban on the app through the use of an executive order. This was done as an attempt to force TikTok to sell itself to a U.S. based company. Those in favor of banning TikTok believe that its Chinese ownership is a threat to the United States security through its intelligence gathering potential.
William McDonough, a computer science teacher here at Masuk can understand these concerns over data security.
“[Lawmakers] believe that that company is putting backdoors into their app that allow China to steal data from people’s phones and track information.”
McDonough continued stating, “I think we need to make sure that the apps that are out there are safe to use, and are not being used to track information or steal information from people’s personal devices.”
TikTok’s CEO, Singaporean entrepreneur Zhou Zi Chew, testified in front of Congress on March 23. In the highly publicized four and half hour testimony, congressmen from around the country attempted to get a full picture of TikTok’s use of client data.
“The Chinese Communist Party is engaged in psychological warfare through TikTok to deliberately influence US Children,” stated Georgia representative Buddy Carter during the testimony. Similar attitudes were echoed by most congressmen engaging in Chew’s questioning.
These suspicions have reached local levels, too.
“Governments do things we don’t know all the time,” commented Masuk sophomore Justin Cannone.
Many advocates of a ban share the concern that data gathered through TikTok could be used by the Chinese Communist Party to gather intelligence on the United States populus and use that information to potentially influence users. Institutions in the past have used social media platforms similar to TikTok to influence users through targeted advertising and other methods.
This is not the first time China has been accused of psychological interference with the goal of destabilizing the U.S. government.
Last year, the Washington Post reported on China’s potential to be influencing military operations through Facebook. China also allegedly had ties to Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Facebook provided the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica with user data without the consent of the user, which was then used to make politically targeted ads.
Masuk Senior, Hari Rekovic, shared his opinion on the conflicting points of this issue.
“They’ve been trying to ban TikTok for how long now? I just feel like there’s always two sides to the story. Obviously there’s a justifiable reason why you would wanna ban it, all the inappropriate things kids are seeing and the whole ‘data tracking’ thing. I also see why people wanna keep it. A lot of people have made their own careers of TikTok and a lot of people have actually blown up. I don’t know, it’s really hard to say whether it’s justified or not.”
One of the bills being proposed to protect against the misuse of data by foreign bodies has gained mass attention in the media. It is titled the RESTRICT Act. The bill would allow the President to ban any foreign technology that they may consider a threat to national security.
The exact language of the bill is the aspect that is receiving the most scrutiny. Its vagueness concerns critics, as it could potentially lead to abuse of power. The bill limits the amount of information about specific bans that the public is given and clarifies that the President is not required to explain the applications of the law. Meaning that the President could ban a service without any clear reason given to the public.
The bill’s language also gives the government the ability to punish those who access banned products. For example, using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access TikTok could lead to penalties, including up to 25 years in prison. The bill may also open up the option of the U.S. government seizing data gathered by companies like TikTok for its own use. All of these concerns relate to one issue — a gigantic breach of American privacy.
It is impossible to know what the fate of TikTok in the United States will be. But it is clear that lawmakers are greatly concerned about the security of data gathered by the app. Only time will tell whether or not TikTok will have a future in the U.S.