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Beware the Hidden Power of TikTok

(By S. Phillips) – The era of digital geopolitical competition has arrived, and the widespread use of personal electronic devices, digital platforms, and communication infrastructure creates opportunities for citizens and countries alike to reach large segments of populations within seconds.

However, the global digital reach is not always benign. Since 2018, the video platform TikTok has provided the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with an unprecedented opportunity for access into the United States and our allies and partners.

Unfortunately, TikTok is likely the tip of the iceberg, according to experts at the Special Competitive Studies Project (SCSP), a bipartisan nonprofit organization.

TikTok presents a unique challenge for policymakers because of its origin in the PRC, its complex corporate governance leadership and oversight, and its ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

National security concerns related to TikTok include:

CCP Control and Corporate Governance: TikTok’s corporate relationship to its China-based parent company, Bytedance, remains murky. As a PRC-based firm, Bytedance is ultimately subject to the rules and regulations of the CCP.

Data Security & Privacy: Despite denials that TikTok’s PRC-based developers can access TikTok’s U.S. user data, several instances have been reported of non-public U.S.-based user data being accessed by PRC-based engineers.

Malign Influence: The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has warned that TikTok could be used by CCP authorities to execute influence operations, including the ability to influence potentially high-impact and senior U.S. Government officials.

Other societal and health concerns are associated with the platform as well, including polarization, addiction, and psychological well-being.

Other platforms that could pose similar challenges, particularly with respect to data harvesting, data exploitation, and potentially covert influence include WeChat (social media), Shein (fast fashion e-commerce), Temu (discount shopping), Capcut (video editing) and Tencent (gaming).

According to the SCSP, there are steps the U.S. government could consider mitigating the security risks associated with TikTok and similar platforms.

The most comprehensive solution to TikTok, and similar challenges for that matter, would be federal legislation. State level bans also could decrease the platform’s user base among state employees and contractors, although enforcement is unlikely.

A long-term and sustainable solution is a systemic approach to all foreign digital platforms from countries of concern. Such a solution would need to address current challenges in the e-commerce and social media domains, as well as prospective risks. Strategies include the adoption of comprehensive federal data privacy laws.

No matter how the United States deals with TikTok in the near-term, the risks extend beyond TikTok alone, and so must the solutions, according to the SCSP.

Visit http://www.scsp.ai to learn more.

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