TikTok : Is TikTok a threat to national security? This is what experts say: – .

TikTok :

US government could ban TikTok 1:15

(.) – The TikTok short video app quickly became a key element of American popular culture, serving as a platform for sharing viral memes, as well as for political satire and activism. Facebook, the dominant force on social media, has tried to copy the app, but so far that hasn’t slowed its rapid growth.

However, now TikTok faces the most direct threat to its expansion in the United States and this does not come from a competitor, but from the Government. President Donald Trump said Tuesday that they are “considering” banning the app, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. In this way, he reaffirmed the statements that the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, had made on Monday.

This is just the latest, most high-profile example of how Washington alarms the app that’s popular with America’s youngest users, where TikTok has been downloaded 165 million times. Other prominent critics had previously highlighted TikTok as a possible espionage threat. Last year, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton asked the intelligence community to assess the risk TikTok could pose to national security.

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TikTok has rejected those claims, calling them “unfounded.” To underscore its independence from China, TikTok has mentioned its recently hired executive director, who is American, and said that “it has never provided user data to the Chinese government.” “Nor would we do it if asked,” he said.

The United States is not alone in its attempt to crack down on TikTok. India said this week it would ban TikTok and other Chinese apps after a bloody border clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers.

Although leaders like Pompeo have described TikTok as a clear and present danger, many in the cybersecurity community say the reality is more complex.

While TikTok could become a clear threat to US security in certain scenarios, they say, the danger today is largely hypothetical or indirect.

Some analysts also claim that the matter is complicated by Trump’s aggressive approach to China in general, and argue that the situation is a reflection of the government’s political priorities. Experts have raised similar concerns about Trump’s approach to Huawei, the Chinese tech giant, saying Trump has inappropriately confused national security with trade negotiations.

“It seems highly unlikely that the long-term strategy is being considered, and the focus is much more on this politically motivated attack on an application because it is Chinese owned, even if there are real security concerns,” he added. .

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The question about China

To understand why policymakers see TikTok as a risk, it is helpful to know how the company works. TikTok is owned by the world’s most valuable startup, a Chinese company called ByteDance. But TikTok does not operate in China and functions as an independent subsidiary.

The main concern of politicians is that ByteDance may be forced to turn over TikTok data on US users to the Chinese government, in accordance with the country’s national security laws. TikTok has said that it stores the data of American users on servers based in the United States that are not subject to Chinese law. Skeptics argue that TikTok owner ByteDance is ultimately a Chinese business that is still in debt to Beijing.

But several security experts told . Business that while TikTok’s ties to a Chinese private company are cause for concern, the app simply wouldn’t be as helpful for eavesdropping.

“It is correct to suspect the Chinese,” said James Lewis, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a group of security experts. “But I’m not sure TikTok is a good intelligence tool for them,” he said.

Like some other social media apps and tech companies, TikTok automatically collects geolocation information from users, IP addresses, unique device identifiers, and the content of messages posted on the app, in accordance with its privacy policy. That’s a lot of data, but much more sensitive information – and potentially more damaging to national security – was exposed by data breaches that affected the Office of Personnel Management, announced in 2015, and Equifax, released in 2017, according to Lewis.

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Even if TikTok collected enough of the right information from the right people to pose a single threat, it is not guaranteed that the Chinese government will be able to access it easily. China’s national security laws contain more gray areas than many consider, according to Samm Sacks, a member of the Yale Law School who studied Chinese law.

Chinese companies have successfully resisted or have put up obstacles to Beijing’s demands for data in the past, Sacks told lawmakers at a Senate hearing in March.

“The Chinese government does not necessarily have unlimited real-time access to data from all companies,” Sacks said in his testimony. “Chinese corporate actors are not synonymous with the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party, and have their own business interests to protect,” he added.

About security flaws

An alarming technical report on TikTok this year has only raised concerns about its security, though experts say there is an important distinction between identifying individual security breaches and labeling something as a threat to national security.

In January, a team of security researchers announced that it had found several vulnerabilities on TikTok. The flaws, if not fixed, could have allowed attackers of the app to gain control of TikTok accounts, change privacy settings on videos, upload videos without permission, and obtain user data, for example email addresses electronic.

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The discovery raised important questions about TikTok’s ability to safeguard user privacy. But the company’s engineers appeared to operate in good faith, according to Oded Vanunu, a security specialist at Check Point Research, who led the group of researchers who announced the findings. TikTok, he said, seemed motivated to fix the flaws.

“They were concerned about the information lens and with their public relations people, there was some friction there,” Vanunu said. “But from our perspective they were very happy to get this kind of information and were happy to cooperate,” he added.

When asked if the vulnerabilities he found could give credit to claims that TikTok cannot be trusted, Vanunu said that security flaws are something that all software companies deal with, even the big ones. The difference, he said, is that TikTok is a relatively young and inexperienced company.

“TikTok is committed to protecting user data,” TikTok said in a statement at the time of the vulnerability disclosure. “Like many organizations, we encourage responsible security researchers to privately reveal zero-day vulnerabilities to us,” he added.

The biggest concern with TikTok

Even when experts describe TikTok’s risk of espionage in largely theoretical terms, policymakers argue that TikTok could threaten U.S. interests in softer ways by influencing the global conversation on its platform. And regarding this point, some experts warn, the danger is already felt.

TikTok has faced increasing criticism, for example, for its handling of content that is critical to the Chinese government. Last year, The Guardian reported leaked documents that it said instructed moderators to quell criticism of socialism and the Tiananmen Square massacre. ByteDance told The Guardian at the time that those guidelines were out of date.

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In November, politically motivated censorship allegations increased when several former American TikTok employees told The Washington Post that they often felt pressured to curb videos that their colleagues in Beijing found subversive, prompting Schumer and Cotton to voice their concerns in his letter to intelligence officials.

TikTok has said that its content and moderation policies are developed by a team of American employees and are not influenced by any foreign government. TikTok investors include big international names like Sequoia Capital and Softbank, and in May the company hired Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive, as CEO.

In addition to restricting some speeches, TikTok could become an important platform in spreading misleading speeches, policy makers and security experts fear. Reports have already found Pizzagate conspiracy theorists on the platform and users spreading false claims about the coronavirus. And if TikTok suffered a data breach, Vanunu said, it could be much easier to attack users with false information that could undermine American democracy.

So TikTok’s user data and content management could plausibly weaken America’s power and influence, experts say, but more abstractly than directly spying on government officials or monitoring troop movements.

And that says more about the lack of policies in the United States that regulate data, privacy and platforms than TikTok, many of them said.

“I think people are mixing a lot of different values ​​here related to human rights, privacy, censorship, and they risk getting caught up in a security argument,” said Karl Grindal, cybersecurity expert at Georgia Tech.