A new research paper by IGP conducts the first thorough national security threat analysis of TikTok, given recent drives to ban the application entirely from the US market.

A bipartisan group of China hawks in Congress and a couple of government agencies have argued that TikTok is a Trojan horse for malign influence, espionage, or offensive operations by the Chinese government. However, these voices fail to explain how a single app’s ownership and control can threaten an entire nation’s security. We take these warnings at face value and provide a comprehensive threat analysis framework to consider the viability of those arguments.

Is TikTok benign, a long-term influence operation, or a convenient stooge whose rapid growth can be leveraged to weaken or destabilize the US politically or militarily? To the best of our knowledge, this work represents the first serious attempt at answering those questions while including an in-depth look at ByteDance’s financials, corporate structure, and business model.

Among the key takeaways:

  • TikTok is not exporting censorship, either directly by blocking material, or indirectly via its recommendation algorithm.
  • The data collected by TikTok can only be of espionage value if it comes from users who are intimately connected to national security functions and use the app in ways that expose sensitive information. These risks arise from the use of any social media app, not just TikTok, and cannot be mitigated by arbitrarily banning one app.
  • TikTok is a commercially-motivated enterprise, not a tool of the Chinese state, and its organizational structure segregates the Chinese market from global markets so that it can export its AI services globally.
  • A TikTok ban would harm millions of American users of TikTok who own equity in their creations and followers. Congress and the Biden administration should consider the many content creators, satirists, comedians, influencers, and marketers exercising their first amendment rights to free expression and earn a living through ad-revenue sharing programs, direct sales, or brand sponsorship.
  • A ban would weaken competition in the social media/advertising industry, expropriate capital investors, and eliminate more than a thousand US jobs.
  • Banning TikTok risks retaliation from China against US firms and would legitimize and encourage other countries to censor US apps and online services, localize data, and contradicts US policies favoring an open and free internet.

Download the paper here.

2 thoughts on “New IGP Research Paper: TikTok and US National Security

  1. I cannot fathom how anyone could publish such dribble claiming to be ‘analyzing datasets’ when their entire methodology is tossing out some ideological first principles and then cobbling together a few citations to others work to back their argument.

    You have provide no new insight into TikTok’s censorship, and what you do cite would never stand up to basic scrutiny about whether it backs the claims.

    Great, you toss a couple keywords in search. Good job.

    Great, shell corporations. That’s a real solid firewall there.

    Maybe wait a month after your friend is forced to disclose their executives spied on journalists critical of the company next time.

    Maybe wait until after China finishes hollowing out its tech companies over ideological control before making claims about market incentives.

    Suppose you tossed this on a blog because it wouldn’t withstand even basic peer review.

    Pretty sad.

  2. Q: I cannot fathom how anyone could publish such dribble claiming to be ‘analyzing datasets’ when their entire methodology is tossing out some ideological first principles and then cobbling together a few citations to others work to back their argument.
    A: We never claimed to be analyzing datasets. The analysis was conducted by Citizenlab and we reference security researchers – feel free to call them incompetent but you had better back those claims with evidence instead of resorting to a disrespectful rant.
    Q: You have provide no new insight into TikTok’s censorship, and what you do cite would never stand up to basic scrutiny about whether it backs the claims.
    A: Yes, we do. Refer to the section on censorship. “what you do cite would never stand up to basic scrutiny about whether it backs the claims.” Please be precise, what citation are you referring to?
    Q: Great, shell corporations. That’s a real solid firewall there.
    A: If you are implying that we are saying shell corporations would somehow protect Americans from the evil that is TikTok 1) you are missing the point about their organizational structure, which is that it’s an attempt to cater to the different data governance requirements of different operating environments 2) the premise that TikTok is a trojan horse is ridiculous, read the paper.
    We appreciate your comments and would like nothing better than be corrected, after all that’s how one learns and improves, right? But I don’t think you have a real point here.

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