TikTok scare frenzy and ‘China’s willingness to steal data’

Government announces TikTok ban

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TikTok and its influence over the western world have been placed under the microscope this week. Its critics are demanding that more regulation is put in place in order to curb its reach. In the US, its place in society was up for debate as the White House demanded an alternative version be created over growing fears that China is stealing vital American data. The UK Government also chipped in, banning the app from MPs’ devices. Owned by ByteDance, a Chinese tech firm that employs around 130,000 people, a vast amount of the platform’s one billion active users are based in the US. So why are people so terrified of TikTok? Express.co.uk takes a look.


TikTok has only become a global phenomenon in the past few years. In 20202, it surpassed two billion mobile downloads across the world and was named the third-fasting growing brand by Morning Consult that year. A year later, Cloudflare declared it the most popular website.

As a programme, TikTok offers users the chance to submit videos that can range between three seconds and 10 minutes in length. However, it has not been without its controversy.

Among the many claims made against TikTok include inappropriate content being uploaded, misinformation being spread widely, user privacy being breached, and lapses in moderation. All of this has led the US government to come down on the app, and hard.

Chris Wray, the FBI’s director, recently argued that TikTok’s influence in the West had become so vast that the tech firm represented a threat to the national security of countries like the US.

During a House Homeland Security Committee hearing, he claimed that Beijing may be able to use the application to push through its own agenda through algorithms.

These algorithms suggest content to users all while collecting their usage habits and data. This, he feared, could also be used in espionage.

Speaking in December at the University of Michigan, Mr Wray said that those concerns were “in the hands of a government that doesn’t share our values and that has a mission that’s very much at odds with what’s in the best interests of the US — that should concern us.”.

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Chinese law requires its private firms to give the government data if requested. US lawmakers fear that this could, too, apply to the app in America.

However, TikTok claims it has never been asked to share data with the Chinese government.

Mr Wray said Beijing had displayed a “willingness to steal Americans’ data on a scale that dwarfs any other”, and that those in his country had helped give China “that much ability to shape content… and [give] access to people’s devices”.

Another opponent was ex-US President Donald Trump, who condemned the app in 2020, demanding that the company find a US buyer if it wanted to continue operating in the country.

That ban, though, was lifted a year into Joe Biden’s term of office, though the incumbent US President has also raised his own concerns about TikTok.

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This week Mr Biden’s administration threatened the tech giant with a ban unless its owner agreed to remove their shares in TikTok in the US.

TikTok acknowledged the request on Wednesday, with its spokesperson Maureen Shanahan, saying that “if protecting national security is the objective, divestment doesn’t solve the problem”.

She added: “A change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access.

“The best way to address concerns about national security is with the transparent, US-based protection of US user data and systems, with robust third-party monitoring, vetting, and verification, which we are already implementing.”

Mr Biden’s ultimatum was initially reported by the Wall Street Journal, and is seen by some observers as a turning point in the row over how the US can stifle Chinese progress through TikTok.

Their counterparts in Beijing though described the American government as “unreasonably suppressing” TikTok, spreading “false information” about the firm.

Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, added that the “US side has so far failed to produce evidence that Tik Tok threatens US national security”.

Last September, Vanessa Pappas, TikTok Chief Operating Officer, testified at a Senate hearing. She defended the company, claiming it didn’t store US-based data in China.

It would appear that the US isn’t the only nation concerned about the application’s significance. Just as TikTok was becoming one of the world’s most popular apps, India banned it, arguing the platform was “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the state, and public order”.

The same year, Hong Kong saw TikTok “pull out” of the nation amid issues after China imposed a new security bill on the island. And in 2022, the BBC confirmed Taliban-run Afghanistan had banned the application because it was “leading Afghan youths astray”.

This week, the British Government announced a “precautionary” ban for those in the House of Commons to not have the app on their phones by the Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden.

He said: “This ban applies to government corporate devices within ministerial and non-ministerial departments, but it will not extend to personal devices for government employees or ministers or the general public. That is because, as I have outlined, this is a proportionate move based on a specific risk with government devices.”

When approached for comment by Express.co.uk, a TikTok spokesperson said: “We are disappointed with this decision. We believe these bans have been based on fundamental misconceptions and driven by wider geopolitics, in which TikTok, and our millions of users in the UK, play no part. We remain committed to working with the government to address any concerns but should be judged on facts and treated equally to our competitors. We have begun implementing a comprehensive plan to further protect our European user data, which includes storing UK user data in our European data centres and tightening data access controls, including third-party independent oversight of our approach.”

In the UK, TikTok is incorporated and regulated in the UK and Ireland. The platform’s parent company, Bytedance Ltd is incorporated outside of China and is a private, global company.

TikTok’s user data is stored in the US and Singapore, not China, and European user data will soon, the company says, be stored at a new European data centre.

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