Explained: White House Supports Bill That Could Ban TikTok, What Are The Concerns Over TikTok?

TikTok's ownership by a Chinese company has led to fears of the app and users' data and personal information being misused by the Chinese government, leading to national security concerns driving proposals to ban the app.

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The Joe Biden adminstration has supported a bill that grants the US federal government to ban TikTok and other similar technologies. 

While India has already banned TikTok, there have been proposals abroad as well and restrictions on its usage have already been placed in some cases.

In the United States, a bipartisan group of Congresspersons have come together with a bill that grants the US Department of Commerce the authority to ban TikTok and other similar apps and services in national interest. The White House has supported the proposed legislation.

Here we explain what the bill proposes, what the White House has said, and what are the concerns over TikTok.

What has the bill proposed?

Democratic Senator Mark Warner said that the proposed bill grants the Secretary of Commerce the authority to ban TikTok or similar technologies, which might include apps or other services, on national security grounds.

The proposed law would also apply to foreign technologies from China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba, said Warner, as per Reuters.

While Russia is a traditional US adversary, China has emerged as the main strategic competitor in recent years and is expected to be the main strategic adversary for decades to come. Iran and North Korea also have adversarial relations with the United States and together with China and Russia have been accused of mounting cyber attacks on the United States.

Reuters reported that Warner said it was important the government do more to make clear what it believes are the national security risks from TikTok. 

"It’s going to be incumbent on the government to show its cards in terms of how this is a threat," Warner said.

The White House has supported the proposed law, saying it would "strengthen our ability to address discrete risks posed by individual transactions, and systemic risks posed by certain classes of transactions involving countries of concern in sensitive technology sectors".

"We look forward to continue working with both Democrats and Republicans on this bill, and urge Congress to act quickly to send it to the President’s desk," said National Security Advisor (NSA) Jake Sullivan.

What are concerns over TikTok?

TikTok is a social media app owned and operated by Chinese company ByteDance. It allows 15-second videos to be made and circulated along with chat and search functions that make emergence of trends and possibility of going viral high.

TikTok proved to be highly influential and led to the introduction of reels on Instagram and shorts on YouTube which are these platforms' equivalent features of TikTok's 15-second videos. 

While the app has become wildly popular with users, there are security concerns that are rooted in lack of trust in TikTok's parent Chinese company. Since China is governed by the Communist Party of China and has no safeguards, free speech, or privacy, the line of state and private enterprises is blurry and it's feared that huge data generated on TikTok and huge user information the app collects might be accessed by the Chinese government. 

Besides knowing user preferences and behaviour patterns of users as well as societies, TikTok collects lot of data, such as:

  • All TikTok videos you watch
  • All of your messages as messages are not encrypted
  • Your country location, IP address, and device type

Cyber-security company Kaspersky also notes that TikTok also collects the following information with permission:

  • Your exact location
  • Your phone’s contacts and other social network connections
  • Your age and phone number
  • Payment information

While most social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram collect such data, there are key differences that raise concerns over TikTok. Firstly, unlike Meta-owned Instagram or WhatsApp, TikTok chats are not end-to-end encrypted.

The potential access and misuse of US users' data by Chinese government is also a concern. If Chinese government accesses US users' data, then it can study behaviour patterns and flood the platform with targeted content to influence US behaviour and even meddle elections just like Russia was accused of in 2016 presidential election.

Kaspersky notes that TikTok does not use two-factor authorisation which makes it vulnerable to cyber attacks.

"One of the less-discussed TikTok security issues is the absence of two-factor authentication...Single-factor authentication is not uncommon on social platforms. Coupled with a weak password, this creates a possible security issue as it can lead to phishing or ransomware attacks, among other threats. Many social media platforms now offer two-factor authentication," notes Kaspersky.

It is out of these fears of potential Chinese control and subsequent misuse of it by Chinese government that there are concerns over TikTok. Similar concerns don't exist for Facebook or Instagram as these are platforms based in free countries with robust rules and regulations and are not prone to state control. The same cannot be said about China where lines between private and state enterprises is blurry and there are no checks and balances on Communist Party's authority.

As a result, India banned TikTok and some countries are also considering it. The Canadian federal government, the Europrean Union (EU), and the US military have already asked employees to not keep TikTok on their official devices. Restrictions have also been made on TikTok in several local jurisdictions in the United States.