TikTok faces growing national security concerns: ‘It’s not just about collecting or stealing that data’


With more than 1 billion monthly users worldwide, TikTok has captivated many users with a platform that seems to know who they are. However, critics say TikTok may know too much.

The popular social media app tracks its users’ likes, dislikes, and personal information, including email addresses, phone numbers, and WiFi networks.

Gizmodo senior technology reporter Thomas Germain revealed to CBS News how TikTok collects user data, including access to users’ contacts.

“They go through all my contacts to see if those people are on TikTok, but who knows what they do with it,” Germain said. “They’re definitely following everything that’s in there, whether those people are on TikTok or not. And the interesting thing is that my friends didn’t consent to their phone numbers and emails being uploaded to TikTok.”

While other apps are also ingesting similar data, TikTok’s parent company is Chinese-owned ByteDance, and US officials have repeatedly warned that the Chinese government could force the company to share the data it collects on its users.

“We have national security concerns,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in November. “They include the possibility that the Chinese government could use it to control data collection from millions of users.”

A growing number of states and the US military have banned the use of TikTok on government-issued devices because of these fears.

John Carlin, who previously headed the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said the data collected can be very valuable.

“We’re thinking about data itself — people have been calling it the new oil,” Carlin said.

He worries that Chinese officials could also influence which videos are shown to Americans.

“It’s not just about collecting or stealing that data,” Carlin said. “It also manipulates what you see. And the question for national security experts is, do we want China to dictate what we see here in America?”

Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of politics for America, said the concern was overdone and “make for good politics.” He said TikTok collects less data than other social media apps and is also working to move user data to servers in the US — out of China’s reach.

“That would be the firewall,” Beckerman said. “Nothing is bulletproof, but for the concerns that are raised about it, yes it is bulletproof.”

The Biden administration is investigating TikTok’s plan to store its data in the US as part of a broader year-long review of whether the company’s ties to China pose a national security threat. It is unclear when the probe will end.

And more investigations are on the way. A senior adviser to the Republican House of Representatives told CBS News that investigating TikTok’s ties to China will be a priority as the GOP takes control of the House of Representatives in January.

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