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The National Security Threat Posed by Tiktok

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TikTok, a video sharing platform of 15-second video clips, rose to popularity among teens in 2018 gaining 96 million users in the United States and 500 million users worldwide. It became headline news when its valuation jumped to $75 billion, surpassing Uber ($72 billion) to become the world’s most valuable start-up. TikTok offers an array of resources to assist with the creative process in sounds and snippets, along with enhancement options such as filters, music, animation, special effects and more. Paid partnerships and celebrity endorsements like Jimmy Fallon doing the “#Tumbleweedchallenge” have boosted TikTok’s subscribers immensely. The challenge alone generated over 8,000 video submissions and more than 10.4 million engagements in TikTok – the biggest spike the app has seen since its launch in 2016. The company that developed TikTok, ByteDance, was founded in 2012 by Zhang Yiming in Beijing. 

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A big tech firm such as ByteDance relies on artificial intelligence (AI) to provide users with the best interface experience, illustrating how AI-based tools enable the production of viral content, customized delivery and consumption. TikTok’s algorithm quickly learns individual preferences, as it captures their likes and comments in the platform, reflecting how long the users watches videos; utilizing it to pre-select videos that the user may enjoy. Rather than users manually filtering their preferences, TikTok delivers content to users by automatically displaying a 15 second video once the user opens the app, restricting the user from swiping through video clips until the end of the video clip. A massive amount of data is required to train deep learning models for accurate results. As a result of linking a social media account upon signing up to TikTok, it allows access to gather information from your social media platforms to construct customized engaging content. User data may also be gathered from advertising networks or publicly available sources. Downloading the application to your mobile device requires allowing access to certain functionalities. Accepting permissions to your device will allow TikTok to access your app history, contacts, phone, media, your camera, microphone and lastly, your location.

Now, the Chinese owned company, ByteDance, is being questioned for its ties with the Chinese government. Ever since the start of the US and China trade war, tensions have risen between the world’s two largest national economies. Fears of infiltration have U.S. lawmakers warning TikTok users’ of their data potentially being shared with China to spy on U.S. citizens and use it as a source to mass distribution of disinformation like the 2016 presidential election where Russia played a big part to boost Trump’s votes along with Cambridge Analytica harvesting data of millions of Facebook accounts, and without user consent, used it for political advertising. TikTok has also been previously accused of data privacy violations. In February 2019, TikTok agreed to pay a fine of $5.7 million responding, to allegations that it has been illegally collecting private information of children under the age of 13 using the app.

Despite fears of misuse of U.S data, TikTok has also been guilty of allowing propaganda from extremist groups such as ISIS to promote their ideal beliefs in the platform which can also be seen as a national security threat.

Elisabeth Kendall, an Oxford University expert on extremism, believe extremist groups as ISIS have joined TikTok to target a younger audience to promote their in ideology by using appealing filters and catchy anthem songs because it can be an effective method to recruit young individuals into shifting their ideology. “This catchy sing-along method for propagating ISIS ideology means it spreads quickly and sticks in the collective memory. It tends to be far more effective than sermons or theological debate and treatises” said Elisabeth Kendall. TikTok has updated their guidelines of use and prohibits terrorist and criminal organizations from promoting their ideology in order to maintain its culture of entertainment. TikTok has taken steps to improve content displaying in their application by hiring many content moderators from all over the world to organize restrictions on content and relying on advanced algorithms to detect any global terrorist groups or any suspicious activity.

TikTok has also tried clarifying their ties to their home country, China, after statements made by US lawmakers expressing their concern of the Chinese owned company, ByteDance, required to adhere to the laws of China and unable to decline the request to disclose U.S data to the Chinese Communist Party, if requested. Suspicions also rise from China’s long track record to compel tech companies to censor the internet within its borders.

TikTok has responded to the security concerns related to U.S citizens’ data being used or influenced by a foreign government: “Our data centers are located entirely outside of China and none of our data is subject to Chinese law,” TikTok went further to comment concerning data privacy and security, “We have dedicated a technical team focused on adhering to robust cybersecurity policies, and data privacy and security practices” Despite its popularity in the United States and many countries over the world, ByteDance, parent company of TikTok may always be seen with suspicion and discerning.  

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