Both TikTok and its Chinese counterpart Douyin crossed 2 billion downloads on Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store in April 2020, according to mobile insight firm Sensor Tower, making the platform one of the most-downloaded apps in the online market. The app also reportedly has an estimated 65 million active American users. As the app has grown in popularity, it has also come under scrutiny due to concerns over user privacy and Chinese involvement.
The United States government announced in November 2019 that owner of TikTok ByteDance was under national security review, The New York Times reported. U.S. officials expressed concerns about the app over malicious data collection and Chinese state influence. Other countries have taken note of TikTok as well, including India, which banned the app Monday despite having one of its largest user bases.
Israeli cybersecurity firm Check Point told CNBC in January that it found multiple security vulnerabilities in the app that could open the door for hacking. On the TikTok website, a function allows users to send a text message to a phone number of choice in order to download the app.
Check Point found that hackers could create fake text messages containing malicious links, which would then allow them to take control of accounts, CNBC reported. Hackers could then manipulate user content and even gain access to personal information such as names and email addresses.
After Check Point conducted its investigation, TikTok announced that it would be fixing security issues and releasing new content guidelines in a new patch, according to NBC News.
“TikTok is committed to protecting user data. Like many organizations, we encourage responsible security researchers to privately disclose zero day vulnerabilities to us,” TikTok security engineer Luke Deshotels said in response.
For the Department of Defense, however, the threat of malicious data collection was viewed as a security threat and in January the Pentagon announced that the app would no longer be allowed on government-issued phones, Forbes reported. (RELATED: Sen Hawley Calls For Investigation Of ‘Predatory’ Chinese Video App)
Soldiers in the Army were directed to uninstall the app in mid-December. “There was a Cyber Awareness Message sent out on 16 December [that] identifies TikTok as having potential security risks associated with its use,” Army spokesperson Lt. Col Robin Ochoa told CNN Dec. 30.
The Navy issued a similar ruling, stating that users with government-issued devices would be blocked from accessing the Navy Marine Corps intranet if TikTok was downloaded on the device, according to Reuters.
In addition to concerns over data collection — particularly threats to user privacy and the potential disclosure of national security information — U.S. government officials have also expressed concerns about TikTok’s relationship to the Chinese government and the role its parent company ByteDance might play in allegedly transferring user data to China.
Republican Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, for example, introduced the “No TikTok on Government Devices” Act in March, which would prohibit all federal employees from using TikTok on government-issued devices. “TikTok is owned by a Chinese company that includes Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members in leadership,” Hawley’s Senate office said in a statement March 4.
Former Walt Disney executive Kevin Mayer, who became TikTok’s chief executive in May, has denied connections between TikTok and the CCP and claimed TikTok is not a Chinese company because ByteDance is legally based in the Cayman Islands.
However, ByteDance chief executive Zhang Yiming, to whom Mayer reports, has previously subordinated his company to the CCP, according to a 2018 letter obtained by the investigative China Media Project. In the letter, Zhang apologizes to the Chinese government after regulators shut down Neihan Duanzi, an app that was created by ByteDance prior to TikTok.
Zhang confessed that the app was “incommensurate with socialist core values” and did not follow the “four consciousnesses,” a central tenet of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s governing ideology. In the letter, Zhang also committed to “deepening cooperation” with the CCP.
Allegations of Chinese censorship on the app went mainstream after leaked documents revealed by the Guardian in September 2019 showed TikTok instructing its Chinese moderators, which even monitored content produced by Americans, to censor videos that mentioned topics sensitive to the CCP.
A 17-year-old girl in New Jersey was also locked out of her account in November 2019 after posting a viral video criticizing the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighur ethnic minority, CNBC reported. (RELATED: Pompeo Demands China End ‘Horrific’ And ‘Dehumanizing’ Forced Abortions, Sterilizations Of Uighurs)
— Yeni Şafak English (@yenisafakEN) November 27, 2019
Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called for an investigation into TikTok and was later joined by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who requested a bipartisan investigation into the social media platform, USA Today reported.
The pressure campaign worked, as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States announced in November 2019 that ByteDance would be put under review for its $1 billion acquisition of karaoke app Musical.ly, focusing on how the parent company handled the storage of user data on its platforms.
TikTok pushed back on the allegations in an October 2019 blog post, stating that it keeps the user data of Americans in servers located in the U.S. and Singapore, meaning that none of the data would be subject to Chinese law. The company also claimed that they had “never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content.”
After the 2019 pressure campaign, TikTok began hiring more American engineers to reduce its reliance on staff in China. Earlier this month, ByteDance stated that it had hired over 1,000 American employees and would hire 100 additional security, data, and privacy protection experts by the end of 2020, Reuters reported.
Despite the changes, some U.S. lawmakers remain skeptical. Hawley told the Daily Caller in May that “TikTok is monitoring users’ keystrokes, following their search histories, and tracking them around the web.”