Americans: watch your backs. Last week, Forbes released a bombshell report that ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, the popular video recording and meme app, was planning to monitor and track the physical location of Americans. It’s not the first time there have been national security and human rights questions swirling around ByteDance, the China-based technology company that owns all of TikTok’s offshore data and could easily be leveraged by the Chinese government.
Forbes would not specifically say which Americans ByteDance was targeting, but it would not be too farfetched to assume they would be influential figures in media and politics — the same folks China tracked during Hong Kong’s volatile freedom and democracy protests. TikTok’s surveillance capabilities have long been a concern. The Trump administration even went as far as to consider banning US downloads of the app. TikTok can track a user’s every tap on the screen, check which websites they visit, access their microphone and camera — all this even when the app is not being used. It can also access credit card data saved on the phone, bank account information and saved passwords in a keychain. (At this point, apologist tech cranks will say, “but the Instagram and Facebook apps do most of those things too!” To which the response is: “which authoritarian dictatorship is secretly controlling Meta and using its data for nefarious means?”)
The Forbes report showed how TikTok’s app could be used to track the specific movements of any user, whether it be journalists working on sensitive topics like national security or, say, Uighur freedom fighters in the US or Europe. Yet this did not stop two major media outlets from setting up TikTok accounts in recent weeks. Both the Associated Press and the Atlantic set up brand accounts on the platform and now accompany the popular Washington Post TikTok team.
The question is, why? The simple answer is that these supposed news outlets are more interested in turning journalists into influencers and harvesting eyeballs for subscriptions and profit than they are in journalism and possible security concerns. If TikTok is on a journalist’s phone, ByteDance knows about it. If an AP reporter or an Atlantic writer uses the app for fun and clever videos, their information, including encrypted sources and passwords, could be making its way to China.
Recently, the Biden administration invited several TikTok influencers to the White House in order to discuss election strategy. Washington Post technology reporter Taylor Lorenz, who also has a significant TikTok following, defended the move but did not address the national security concerns it presented. These influencers created TikTok content while inside the White House and meeting with the president of the United States.
All this occurred after the release of the Forbes report on October 20, which is surprising considering that the report demonstrated how TikTok could present a national security threat. Forbes’s warnings seem to be going ignored by both media elites and the Biden White House. Instead, they are openly embracing and growing the app itself. If TikTok is on your phone, there’s every chance that it’s listening on behalf of a hostile foreign power. Shouldn’t journalists and the White House care about that?
At some point, TikTok becomes too big to ban. Perhaps it already is — there would be severe blowback for any president or party that attempted to do it. The Democrats and their media allies want us to take their jeers about threats to our democracy seriously — yet they seem willing to capitulate to China’s authoritarian efforts, both in Hong Kong now and the United States. Popularity and profit are prioritized over a foreign adversary’s ability to compromise our freedom. How do we square that circle?