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Why the proposed TikTok ban is more about politics than privacy, according to experts

Bans on the social media app TikTok are beginning to gain momentum in Washington and several states. Experts say there's not much solid evidence that TikTok poses a national security threat.
Drew Angerer
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Bans on the social media app TikTok are beginning to gain momentum in Washington and several states. Experts say there's not much solid evidence that TikTok poses a national security threat.

TikTok has become a dominant force in pop culture in recent years, which has prompted growing concerns from government officials over its Chinese ownership.

At least 14 states have recently banned the application from being used on government devices; some state-run public universities followed suit, banning or blocking the app on their campuses.

Last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Republican Senator Marco Rubio, announced legislation that would ban TikTok in the United States. Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, claimed that TikTok's Chinese parent company, Byte Dance, cannot be trusted with access to United States' user data because of the potential national security risk.

This is in part because Byte Dance is required by Chinese law to assist the government, which could include sharing user data from anywhere in the world.

"There is no more time to waste on meaningless negotiations with a CCP-puppet company," Rubio said in a statement. "It is time to ban Beijing-controlled TikTok for good."

But experts like Georgetown University law professor Anupam Chander say there isn't any concrete evidence that American TikTok users have had their data shared – or that the Chinese government is utilizing that information for political gain.

"There's no evidence of this. None of the claims here, even the insider claims that some employees make about access by people in China, that access isn't by the Chinese government, but rather others within the Byte Dance corporate structure, to [look at] data about TikTok employees and others in the United States," Chander said.

Many of the lawmakers' concerns have to do with location tracking services within the app, which they fear could be used for espionage. When it comes to social media apps, location tracking is a standard feature.

"It certainly makes sense, then, for U.S. soldiers to be told, 'Hey, don't use the app because it might share your location information with other entities," said Chander. "But that's also true of the weather app and then lots of other apps that are existing in your phone, whether they're owned by China or not."

Ryan Calo is a professor of law and information science at the University of Washington. He says that, while data privacy in the United States still needs much improvement, the proposed legislation is more about geopolitical tensions and less about TikTok specifically.

"Just in the same way that Europe is very concerned about the relationship between American companies and the American intelligence sector ... the concern that has been articulated about TikTok is that practice [of data collection], which is widespread among different kinds of digital apps, would be problematic if it turns out that there is a cozy relationship between the company TikTok and the Chinese intelligence sector," Calo said.

"The truth of the matter is, if the sophisticated Chinese intelligence sector wanted to gather information on particular state employees in the United States, it wouldn't probably have to go through TikTok."

Chander also warns against what he calls a "politicization of national security."

"It's always easy – and this happens across the world – to say that a foreign government is a threat, and 'I'm protecting you from that foreign government,' he says. "And I think we should be a little cautious about how that can be politicized in a way that far exceeds the actual threat in order to achieve political ends."

Both Chander and Calo are skeptical that an outright TikTok ban would gain much political momentum, and both argue that even if it were to move forward, banning a communication platform would raise First Amendment concerns. But Calo believes the conversation could push policy in a positive direction for Americans.

"I think that we're right in the United States to be finally thinking about the consequences of having so much commercial surveillance taking place of U.S. citizens and residents," he said. "And we should do something to address it, but not in this ad hoc posturing way, but by passing comprehensive privacy rules or laws, which is something that, for example, the Federal Trade Commission seems very interested in doing."

Edited by Mallory Yu

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Manuela López Restrepo
Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.