New York City is the latest government to ban the popular video-sharing app TikTok from government phones for security concerns. For government officials and others with access to sensitive information this makes sense and goes along with experts’ advice. Unfortunately, many politicians at state and federal levels don’t want to stop at just government devices and have been advocating for a ban for the general public. Despite the uproar, evidence of a national security threat posed by the average person using TikTok is lacking and insufficient to justify the resulting economic harm.
Support for banning TikTok hinges on the idea that the app collects sensitive data from users and, if requested, would be required to give the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) access. This concern is not unique to TikTok. When looking at the app’s code, there doesn’t appear to be anything uniquely nefarious.
A study by The Citizen Lab compared the data collection practices between TikTok and the version of the app that operates within China, Douyin. The study found that while the two apps shared code, they operated under the norms for their respective markets with TikTok not collecting any more information than is standard for social media platforms that already operate in the US and there was no evidence that TikTok uploaded sensitive personal information to outside servers.
The biggest difference was that Douyin employed dynamic code loading, which means the system is not reliant on the user’s consent to update the software. The International version of TikTok requires user consent to update software.
The national security implications of TikTok’s data collection are overblown. According to a report published by the Internet Governance Project, TikTok would likely only pose a national security threat if someone in a position where they could have an impact on national security were to use the app in a way that would expose sensitive information. Such an example could include posting a video that accidentally shows military equipment or critical infrastructure, a risk not unique to TikTok.
The report makes the case that the data TikTok collects is more in line with commercial use than information that would be a risk to national security..
While the evidence suggests the push to ban TikTok amongst US users is based more on fear than facts, the economic impact of such a ban would be very real. The report by the Internet Governance Project notes that advertisers and other businesses have invested in TikTok, with the company expected to make $13.2 billion from advertising revenue in 2023. The companies that advertise through TikTok along with smaller content creators would lose that investment if TikTok were to be banned as the money already spent on advertising would immediately become a waste and the companies would have to rework their advertising strategies.
In addition, banning TikTok would likely negatively impact competition in the social media market. TikTok rapidly became the third most popular social media platform and continues to grow as other big tech companies’ growth slows and currently holds 26% of the US market. TikTok became popular through its ease of use and other social media companies have been creating their own short-form platforms to compete. Using government power to eliminate such a large competitor would only serve to take choices away from consumers and should only be done if the evidence of a national security risk were substantial, a threshold that has not been reached.
As we enter a new era of great power competition between the US and China, consumer products should not be used to send messages. While targeted bans for government employees can be justified, the evidence that TikTok is a security risk when used by an average citizen, is scant and not worth the economic losses from lost investment in advertising that would come with a ban.
Trey Price is a technology policy analyst for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization. For more information, visit https://www.theamericanconsumer.org/ or follow us on Twitter @ConsumerPal.