TikTok is contemplating ways to distance itself from its Chinese parent company as threats from Washington grow louder.
Congress this week advanced legislation to block federal employees from using TikTok on government-issued devices. The Trump administration is considering ways to push the video-sharing app, beloved by teens and 20-somethings, out of the U.S. altogether.
TikTok is owned by the Chinese technology giant ByteDance. And while TikTok has taken steps to distance itself from its Beijing parent company, both the Trump administration and some Republicans and Democrats in Congress fear the Chinese Communist Party could use TikTok as a tool to spy on Americans.
Leading technology policy and national security experts say, if President Trump is determined to run TikTok out of the U.S., he is most likely to issue an executive order declaring it a national security threat under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, an authority that branched out from the century-old Trading with the Enemy Act.
“When we talk about sanctions against Russian oligarchs and kleptocrats, well, the sanctions are that no American can do business with them,” said Stewart Baker, the former general counsel at the National Security Agency. “And now that same sanction might be used against TikTok.”
If the act is invoked, financial transactions between Americans or U.S.-based financial institutions and TikTok would be illegal and punishable with hefty civil fines or criminal prosecution.
“No American can give them advertising money. No American may pay them for the app. No American can enter into a transaction to put them into their app store,” Baker said.
In other words, it would not be possible to find TikTok in app stores. And updates to the app would not be sent to the tens of millions of Americans who already have it on their phones. Eventually, that would make managing the app untenable.
TikTok could also be added to the Commerce Department’s blacklist, known as “the Entity List.” The administration has placed Chinese telecom giant Huawei on it, only to grant several reprieves since.
A third option under consideration by the Trump administration and some lawmakers in Congress is to challenge ByteDance’s acquisition of American lip-syncing app Musical.ly in November 2017, a merger that set the stage for TikTok to become one of the most popular apps in the world.
Officials at TikTok declined to comment on any of the possible enforcement actions aimed at the company.
TikTok rethinks corporate structure in the U.S.
TikTok says that its data on American users is mostly stored in the U.S. and that it has never turned over any information on U.S. users to Chinese authorities. If Beijing made a request, TikTok says, it would not cooperate.
But Baker says if the Chinese government sought data on Americans, it could force TikTok’s parent company to comply.
Assuming China will not ask “is not a prudent move,” he said, noting that government officials fear Beijing officials could in theory build a database on American consumers to tap for micro-targeting advertising or disinformation campaigns.
There are also worries over China using access to steal personal data or blackmail U.S. officials, the same concern raised before gay-dating app Grindr was sold to U.S. investors from a Chinese owner.
“The assumption, which I think is accurate, is any time the Chinese government wants it, they can have it,” Baker said.
“If TikTok can find a way to make the administration happy, maybe through divesting itself of its Chinese owner, that’ll be the course they take,” Jim Lewis, researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former State Department official, told NPR. “If not, I think the hammer comes down.”
There are murmurs about a possible American-based spinoff, or a small group of U.S. investors buying the app from ByteDance in hopes of appeasing the White House and Congress, the technology website The Information reported.
TikTok said in a statement that as it considers changes to its corporate structure in the U.S., keeping the app safe and secure is a top priority.
“We remain fully committed to protecting our users’ privacy and security as we build a platform that inspires creativity and brings joy for hundreds of millions of people around the world,” a TikTok spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, ByteDance is scrambling to burnish its image in the eyes of Washington lawmakers, spending $500,000 in the three months ending in June on lobbying efforts, according to the company’s lobbying disclosure forms filed this week.
Expert: ‘I’ll be damned if I can see the national security threat’
TikTok videos, which tend to feature teenagers lip-syncing or doing viral dance routines, or young people staging funny monologues, political commentaries and, increasingly, political activism, are not the most useful content from an espionage perspective, Lewis said.
“I actually was interested in this, so I watched four hours of TikTok videos. That works out to be over 700 TikTok videos,” he said. “And I’ll be damned if I can see the national security threat.”
TikTok is upfront about what data it collects: access to a device’s microphone and camera; location data; users’ IP addresses; what videos are watched and “liked” on the platform and what messages are exchanged with others; online browsing history (which users can opt out of); and access to the address books on users’ phones.
While that sounds like a massive amount of data collection, it is not unusual. Most smartphone apps grab an enormous trove of data, the details of which are typically spelled out in the apps’ terms and conditions.
“The data that’s gathered from TikTok on your phone is pretty equivalent to what you give away to all your other apps,” said Adam Segal, who leads the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But when you sign off on the user agreement on TikTok, it says, ‘We may share some data with our parent company.’ ”
And that is what is causing all the alarm in Washington: the possibility of Americans’ personal data being collected and sent to China.
The Trump administration has pushed a foreign policy agenda that has been increasingly hostile to China, taking an aggressive stance on trade and other economic matters, as well as measures to combat the country’s scientific and technological prowess, which Trump officials say Beijing can use to undermine American interests.
Lewis said TikTok has become the latest punching bag in this fight with China.
“I see it as a political grudge match,” Lewis said. “If the Chinese intelligence services are so desperate that they rely on TikTok for info, they’re in really bad shape,” he said.