Former employees of the popular social media app TikTok told the media that the heavy involvement of executives from the company’s Beijing-based parent company, ByteTok, in TikTok’s decisions, combined with the Beijing-based company’s access to U.S. user data, makes it a unique and widely debated concern: whether the Beijing background of such a popular social media app makes it a national security concern or a tool for the Chinese government to influence American perceptions. Does the Beijing background of such a popular social networking software make it a national security concern or a tool for the Chinese government to influence American perceptions? President Biden’s order to replace former President Trump’s ban on TikTok with an assessment does not mean he is off the hook, and how a Beijing-affiliated social app is viewed and treated will generate increasing attention and discussion as Beijing authorities increase their crackdown on human rights and press freedom.
An analysis of TikTok published on the website of financial television network CNBC reveals a disturbingly complex picture of the popular social networking application.
Multiple former TikTok employees revealed in interviews the inner workings of the company’s operations: including the requirement that employees work Beijing time to ensure they can answer questions from their Beijing counterparts.
One former TikTok recruiter told CNBC that she was supposed to work from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., but more often than not, she found herself working shifts. She said that’s because the company’s Beijing-based ByteDance executives are heavily involved in TikTok’s decisions and expect the company’s California staff to be available throughout the day.
The recruiter, along with four other former employees, told CNBC they were concerned about the popular social media app’s Chinese parent company, saying it had access to U.S. user data and was actively involved in the Los Angeles company’s decision-making and product development.
Bytespring launched TikTok internationally in September 2017 and acquired Musical.ly, an increasingly popular social app in the U.S., for $1 billion two months later. the two merged in August 2018 and have since rapidly amassed a user base of nearly 92 million in the U.S. In particular, the app has found a niche among teens and young adults. A CNBC report citing an October 2020 report by Piper Sandler shows that TikTok has surpassed Instagram to become the second most popular social media app among U.S. teens, behind Snapchat.
TikTok’s success in the U.S. market has naturally brought it more attention, although not all of it has been in its favor. Last year, former President Donald Trump tried to ban TikTok in the U.S. or force a merger with a U.S. company. The Trump administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has expressed national security concerns about the Chinese ownership of the popular social media app – that TikTok could “provide data directly to the Chinese Communist Party.
TikTok has consistently denied those claims, having told CNBC, “We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, and we would not do so if asked.” In the company’s four most recent semi-annual transparency reports, it has not reported a single request for user data from the Chinese government.
Earlier this year in June, President Joe Biden signed an executive order rescinding Trump’s order banning the app. The new presidential order issued by Biden sets standards for the government to assess the risk of apps associated with foreign adversaries.
CNBC reported that TikTok downplayed the importance of such access. “We use strict access controls and a rigorous approval process overseen by our leadership team in the U.S., including technologies such as encryption and security monitoring to protect sensitive user data,” its spokesman said in a statement.
But one cybersecurity expert said this could expose users to the Chinese government’s information requests. citing Bryan Cunningham, executive director of the Institute for Cybersecurity Policy and Research at the University of California, Irvine, CNBC said: “If the data is needed by Chinese judicial authorities or their parent company, the user would have already given them the legal right to hand over the data.”
China’s National Intelligence Law requires Chinese organizations and citizens to “support, assist and cooperate with the state’s intelligence work”; another law, the 2014 Counterintelligence Law, has similar provisions.
CNBC has learned from its former employees that the close ties between TikTok and its parent company extend far beyond user data. Direction and approval for various decisions, whether small contracts or key strategies, come from ByteTok’s leadership in China.
TikTok’s reliance on ByteTok extends to its technology. Former employees say that nearly 100 percent of TikTok’s product development is led by Chinese ByteHop employees.
In comments to CNBC, TikTok downplayed the importance of its multinational structure. In a statement, a company spokesperson said, “Like many global technology companies, we have product development and engineering teams working cross-functionally around the world to build the best product experience for our community, including in the U.S., the U.K. and Singapore.”
Cybersecurity experts who spoke with CNBC said there are many risks associated with TikTok being so intertwined with its parent company.
One risk is how the Chinese government spreads propaganda or influences the thinking of every American who uses TikTok. This could be done through short videos that the Chinese government might want to show to Americans, whether it’s factual content or misinformation. The company could also choose to censor certain types of content.
What can TikTok do to calm fears? cybersecurity experts interviewed by CNBC had some suggestions for TikTok.
One is for TikTok to be more transparent about its data collection process. For cybersecurity experts, specifics go a long way toward gaining credibility.
Another strategy would be for ByteTok to continue the plan it made near the end of Trump’s presidency and sell TikTok to an American company that Americans already trust.
Instead of focusing exclusively on TikTok or the Chinese app, stronger privacy regulations should be put in place to protect Americans from all tech companies, including those with ties to hostile countries, CNBC reported, citing the editor-in-chief of the Stanford-New America DigiChina Project at Stanford University’s Center for Cyber Policy.
Webster said, “The solution should be comprehensive privacy protections for everyone, protecting you from both U.S. companies and Chinese companies.”