Western governments against TikTok on national security and espionage risk basis: is the social network really dangerous?

The implications behind precautionary measures taken by Western governments and concerns regarding TikTok as a tool of Chinese government espionage and propaganda.
tik tok dangerous

In recent months, the discourse on cybersecurity and user privacy has intensified, leading to the decision by the EU Commission, the US and Canada to ban civil servants from using TikTok.

However, there are several other implications behind this move that go beyond simply protecting user data. Indeed, there are real concerns about misuse and possible spying by China, where Bytedance, the parent company of TikTok, is based.

So let us see in detail how dangerous TikTok can become in the current political environment.

Blocking TikTok, here are the countries where it is banned for use

For three consecutive years, TikTok has been one of the most popular and widely used social networks globally. I counts more than one billion active users worldwide, many of whom reside in Europe and the United States.

The business model adopted by the company is in line with the predominant business model in the industry. It offers its users the opportunity to enjoy content created by other users for free, while collecting huge amounts of highly accurate personal data, which allows it to deliver targeted advertisements.

However, unlike other players in the industry, TikTok is owned by a Chinese company. This worries Western governments. Which see the social platform as a far more dangerous tool than it seems in the hands of the Chinese government.

Indeed, authorities in Western countries fear that the company may be cooperating with the Chinese government in collecting user data. Or, in promoting the Chinese government’s political interests.

The European Commission and the White House have taken a firm stance, banning its civil servants from using the app. This decision was made because of a thorough analysis of possible cybersecurity risks and user privacy. Which led to a danger assessment regarding the reliability of the platform.

In a similar vein, the United States and Canada have also adopted such a restrictive measure. Thus banning the use of TikTok by civil servants on their work devices in order to protect national security from the risks that could arise from the use of this application.

In India, Iran, and Afghanistan, TikTok is banned for everyone since 2020. While in Taiwan the ban is only for civil servants.

TikTok’s hypothetical national security risks

Despite TikTok’s assurances of its independence from the Chinese government, concerns about TikTok’s data collection and user privacy protection remain.

While in our neck of the woods there are a number of Android and iOS apps, such as Facebook, Google, and Instagram, that collect user data and use it for advertising purposes, the discourse, for TikTok, is diametrically different.

Indeed, a number of potential risks have been identified. Including not only the collection of personal data and the use of artificial intelligence algorithms to profile users. But also the risk of politically exposed users’ information transferred to foreign governments, particularly China’s.

Another concern lies in the possibility of the Chinese government manipulating the app’s algorithm to show specific propaganda content to Western users. Thus intending to deviously “brainwash” its users.

In the past, in the early days of the platform’s boom, there have in fact been some high-profile cases of censorship. For example, a user’s account in the United States was suspended for discussing the Chinese government’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang.

Since then, there have been few cases of censorship, if we exclude the moderation decisions that all platforms face.

At present, therefore, these risks are only hypothetical and there is no concrete evidence to show that TikTok has actually violated user privacy or manipulated its algorithm to promote Chinese political propaganda.

Yet, the decisions of Western governments seem to tell a different story.

A negative view toward China by Western governments

Some analysts argue that the choice of Western governments to ban their employees from using TikTok stems from a negative view of China as a hostile and untrustworthy country. This, following a number of incidents of suspected espionage by the Eastern giant in the United States.

In 2018, the U.S. Congress had already passed a law banning the use of telecommunications equipment manufactured by Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE in federal agencies. Saying that such equipment posed a threat to national security.

This ban extended to U.S. telecommunications service providers using Huawei equipment. The idea of a hostile and untrustworthy China thus seems to have extended to Chinese technology companies. Such as ByteDance, which controls TikTok.

Read also: Chinese spy balloon shot down, a diplomatic crisis? How the US-China relations may change

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