China’s TikTok app is a sophisticated surveillance tool used to collect personal and sensitive information from US citizens, Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Brendan Carr said this week.
The Chinese government has access to Americans’ private data, BuzzFeed recently reported.
Calling TikTok a threat to national security, Carr wrote to ask Apple and Google to remove the social media platform from the digital giants’ online stores.
During the first quarter of this year, the hugely popular video-sharing app was downloaded nearly 19 million times on Google and Apple devices, according to Carr’s letter. He wants access to TikTok to be immediately restricted.
But wait: is asking for its removal really the right approach for the United States, a representative democracy, with its First Amendment free speech clause?
“TikTok isn’t just another video app,” Carr, a Republican, said on Twitter this week. “It is the sheep’s clothing. It harvests swathes of sensitive data that new reports say are accessed in Beijing. I called out @Apple and @Google to remove TikTok from their app stores for its pattern of clandestine data practices.
As of Wednesday, it was unclear how Apple or Google would respond to Carr’s request.
We’re not surprised that China is using TikTok to spy on US citizens. The US government has proposed rules to expand surveillance of apps, such as TikTok, that could be used by foreign adversaries to obtain data. These rules would allow the federal government to order app owners to submit to audits and inspections of their data and code.
However, the government has a role to play. The federal government can and should issue advisories informing parents of the risks of TikTok or any other app that poses risks to children.
But a ban? This is where we draw a line on the screen. Much of our basic personal information is already publicly available to third-party applications. So why cite one in particular?
In addition, we have already been there. The Trump administration’s attempt to ban the app was stopped by a federal judge, and it was ultimately dropped by the Biden administration. So it’s probably too late to try again.
Certainly, Americans seem aware that their personal data is not secure in the age of the Internet. But they don’t seem to know what to do about it. And they vote with their feet – or their fingers – enthusiastically downloading apps.
In the United States, about 80 million people actively use TikTok per month according to Wallaroo, a data science company. About 60% of users are women while 40% are men. 16-24 year olds represent 60% of the app’s audience.
Those numbers represent a lot of revenue. But aside from First Amendment objections, to what extent should the government interfere with private capitalist enterprise? Once you order a social media app, you are going down a slippery slope to government intervention in more and more information.
We know of one official in particular who would like that. Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, has been beating his “Tyranny of Big Tech” drum for a while. Hawley’s feeble attempt to bring down Silicon Valley came to nothing.
The federal government has the right to notify us of potential safety issues. And yes, using TikTok can put Americans’ privacy at risk. We need to consider how best to deal with these dangers. But an outright ban by the US government is not the solution.
This story was originally published June 29, 2022 2:03 p.m.