TikTok and US National Security

IGP conducted the first thorough national security threat analysis of TikTok, given 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.