A massive spending bill for the next fiscal year, released by lawmakers in Washington on Tuesday, will soon make it illegal to have TikTok on a device given to you by the government. It is likely to become law in the next few days, which will keep the government from shutting down in part.
Even though the Chinese app is already banned on many federal government devices, the new spending bill adds a measure that makes the ban even stronger. TikTok’s reputation is likely to take a hit from the ban, which comes as the Biden administration is still trying to finish a national security review of the popular app.
TikTok has more than 100 million monthly active users in the U.S. alone, and its ability to create instant viral hits has put it at the forefront of internet culture, even though concerns about data security have been around for a long time. If you use it and are curious about how this crackdown might affect you, here’s what you need to know:
Will This Affect How I Use Tiktok?
Most likely not, unless you work for the federal government and use your work phone to look at TikTok. TikTok is already banned on government-issued devices at the White House, the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department. This ban makes the rule apply to all U.S. government workers. More than a dozen states have banned TikTok on government-owned devices similarly.
Why Did the Ban Happen?
TikTok has been a target for both Republicans and Democrats for a long time, since it is owned by Beijing-based tech giant ByteDance. Lawmakers are worried that the Chinese Communist Party could use the app to spy on Americans or use the app’s algorithm to spread pro-China stories.
Even though the company says it would never be used for bad things, national security experts say that China-based businesses usually have to give the authoritarian government full access to information if it is ever asked for.
Trump tried to completely ban TikTok, but he was not successful. And federal lawmakers have come up with more harsh laws against TikTok that haven’t been passed. So the ban on devices used by the federal government is a step-by-step restriction: Most extreme steps haven’t been taken because there wasn’t enough political will or because the courts stepped in to stop them.
Julian McAuley, a professor of computer science at the University of California, San Diego, said, “I think there’s reason to be concerned about TikTok.” He said that the main difference between TikTok and other social media apps is that TikTok is much more driven by recommendations for each user. McAuley said, “It could be argued that this would make TikTok’s feed more open to being changed to achieve some bad goal.”
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What Evidence Do We Have That Tiktok is a Threat to National Security?
Not a lot of solid proof. The case against TikTok is mostly based on the idea that something like this could happen in theory. But because TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, Washington is worried about the hypothetical risk that millions of Americans could be spied on by a government that is not on their side. FBI Director Chris Wray has said that TikTok is a threat to national security because people could “manipulate content and use it for influence operations” if they wanted to.
Even privacy experts have a hard time quickly figuring out how safe TikTok is for people in the United States. “ByteDance says that it runs its business in the U.S. separately, but there’s no easy way to tell if that’s true,” said Sameer Patil, a professor at the University of Utah who studies online user privacy.
BuzzFeed found that ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok, once used another app it owned to push content that was friendly to the Chinese government. That app, which was different from TikTok, doesn’t exist anymore. Still, some people wondered why ByteDance wouldn’t try to do the same thing on TikTok if it was willing to do that for one of its other services.
The company doesn’t care about the question. TikTok announced earlier this year that “100% of U.S. user traffic” will be sent to servers run by the American tech company Oracle. TikTok said it is working to delete the private information of U.S. users from its own servers and move it all to servers in the U.S., with backup storage in Singapore.
McAuley said that, like other big social media companies, TikTok collects a lot of personal information about the people who use its app. However, he doesn’t know what TikTok could do with information like a user’s age, contact information, viewing habits, search history, and location.
“Social media companies do collect a lot of information about their users, but I think it’s often exaggerated how much they “know” about each user,” he said. Patil said that if TikTok users are worried about their privacy, they should only post to their friends and take location data out of their videos. This can be done in the app’s settings.
How Likely is It That Tiktok Will Be Further Banned in the Us?
It’s still possible, but it doesn’t look like it’ll happen soon. During the Trump administration, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a powerful federal panel that looks at foreign investments in the U.S., started to look into TikTok. The investigation is still going on.
The committee could start a wider ban on TikTok or force the app to be sold to an American company. The Chinese government is likely to strongly oppose this, as it did when a similar sale was proposed during the Trump administration.
Another option is that the committee is happy with the steps TikTok has taken to keep U.S. user data separate from ByteDance employees in Beijing and the Chinese government. CFIUS meetings are known for being secret and taking place behind closed doors. It is not clear when the committee might finish its investigation, nor is it clear which way it is leaning.
How Has Tiktok Responded to the Latest Crackdown?
A spokesperson for TikTok, Brooke Oberwetter, expressed disappointment on behalf of the firm that Congress has taken action to prohibit the use of TikTok on government-owned devices, describing the move as “a political gesture that will do nothing to serve national security interests.”
Oberwetter claimed that TikTok has confidence in the CFIUS procedure, which is focused on preventing the video app from being influenced by the Chinese government.
According to Oberwetter, “the agreement under evaluation by CFIUS will significantly resolve any security concerns voiced at both the federal and state level.” “We will continue to advise Congress on these plans, which were established to further safeguard our platform in the United States under the supervision of our country’s top national security authorities, and we are well underway in implementing them.”
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