US jets shoot down Chinese spy balloons. A potentially larger danger remains invisible, disguised in the digital world. It’s called TikTok, a potentially powerful propaganda tool.
With millions of monthly users, TikTok’s network could send a massive treasure trove of information flows back to Beijing. No guarantee exists against the misuse of this vast amount of personal data. This flow seems at least comparable in value and quantity with the information that could have been collected by the famous spy balloon.
Both the US and Europeans are moving fast to limit TikTok’s reach. EU institutions and the US government recently banished the app on work phones. Many US states and EU countries are following suit. TikTok may be forced to sell out to a Western buyer. On March 7, a bipartisan group of US Senators introduced the RESTRICT Act, which would “create a process” for screening companies operated by foreign adversaries.
Yet don’t expect a total ban — politicians don’t want to upset young voters and seem ready to accept some sort of guarantee to store TikTok data inside Europe and the US.
TikTok’s collection of information outlines interests and behaviors – that is, what is most intimate of a community. In the hands of a state actor such as the Chinese Communist Party, such data represent a precious treasure. It could be used to fuel information operation campaigns, influence political debates, and promote extremism.
Cybersecurity experts fear that advances in artificial intelligence and quantum computing will amplify the TikTok danger. Concrete evidence has emerged about TikTok’s misuse of data and outright lies about who has access to it. In December, the company admitted that engineers in Beijing had accessed user data inappropriately. Attempts to regulate or control ownership of TikTok have proved difficult. A Sidewinder missile cannot solve this challenge.
During his recent visits to both Washington and Brussels, TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew failed to address the app’s critical issues. The US Congress will hear his testimony on March 23. Expect questions about what kind of influence the Chinese Communist Party, which has control over any Chinese company, has on the platform (the Tencent and Alibaba cases, and the inglorious end of Jack Ma, have removed all veils of hypocrisy).
In particular, on the algorithm that determines which videos go viral, and on the moderation criteria that decide which contents are censored or limited in diffusion. TikTok is not just a data collection tool, but a potentially powerful propaganda weapon: it would be enough to promote videos that criticize Western democracies, the legitimacy of the electoral process, and the functioning of liberal economies.
In Los Angeles, TikTok has just opened the “transparency center,” a kind of educational museum in which it talks about its activities and tries to reject criticism of its opacity. It also allows, after having left any electronic device outside the door, to access a room in which to read the source code.
The company is reportedly negotiating deals with both the European and US authorities. In the US, it is moving forward with “Project Texas” which aims to bring the data of American citizens to Oracle’s servers. In the European Union, TikTok is promoting Project Clover, offering to build three data centers to store EU citizen data. It already has invested €600 million in two Irish data centers.
These moves look insufficient. Few expect the US to approve Project Texas. The new RESTRICT Bill enjoys broad bipartisan support and the message to TikTok is clear: divest. “Recognize the political writing on the wall here and move forward with a sale,” says Adam Kovacevic, the CEO of the left-leaning Chamber of Progress tech policy group. “Europe is a few months behind the US in its concern about TikTok’s Chinese ownership, but a divesture to a US owner will ultimately be welcomed by European policymakers too.”
Even so, few expect a total ban. In the US, this would spark lawsuits about government control of free speech. Although Europe has fewer qualms about making certain speech illegal, both American and European politicians don’t want to alienate voters.
TikTok continues to attract young Americans and Europeans, albeit at a slower pace than in previous years. In an interview with Bloomberg, Gina Raimondo, Secretary of the US Department of Commerce, which is overseeing a policy to make it harder for China to gain sensitive US technology related to AI, suggested that a total ban would be political suicide: “The politician in me thinks you’re gonna literally lose every voter under 35, forever.”
All of this is happening on land while the eyes of the world were fixed for a week on a balloon the size of three buses. But so far, the video-sharing app has turned out to be a much more powerful and pervasive intelligence weapon, capable of gathering sensitive information.
Bandwidth is CEPA’s online journal dedicated to advancing transatlantic cooperation on tech policy. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.