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While the DOJ Appeals the Preliminary Injunction on President Trump’s TikTok Ban, the Administration’s National Security and Privacy Concerns Seem Unfounded

Reports Privacy

On October 8, the U.S. Department of Justice appealed the lower court’s decision—to grant a preliminary injunction blocking part of the Trump administration’s ban on the video-sharing company TikTok from U.S. app stores—to the D.C. Circuit.

In his September 27 order, D.C. District Court Judge Carl Nichols held that the administration likely exceeded its authority by infringing on American citizens’ ability to communicate and improperly “regulat[ing] the transmission of informational materials by U.S. persons.” TikTok Inc. v. Trump, No. 1:20-cv-02658 (D.D.C. Sept. 27, 2020). The President announced his ban on August 6, targeting TikTok (owned by Chinese company ByteDance) over national security and privacy concerns, given the app’s access to copious amounts of personal data, which he alleged could be shared with the Chinese government. The company responded in its complaint that President Trump’s listing of TikTok as a threat under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”) is merely a façade to ban the app for political reasons (i.e., to stir up anti-China rhetoric before the November election). With nearly 100 million active monthly users in the U.S. alone, TikTok’s virality raises important questions for the American people. While the legal status of the ban remains unclear in light of the President’s alleged overstepping of authority granted by the IEEPA, experts have also weighed in on the veracity of claims regarding the purported national security risk and concerns around user data.

Experts on China argue that while the possibility of the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) accessing data from TikTok cannot entirely be dismissed, such claims by the U.S. government are speculative at best. Given the lack of supporting evidence suggesting that use of data from Chinese apps has resulted in any material breaches in the United States, it’s hard to prove any real national security threat. Consequently, Louise Matsakis of WIRED believes that such a ban on TikTok is a drastic measure, and could endanger personal liberties in the same way that the Chinese government’s internet censorship policy has. Interestingly, TikTok claims that data on American users is exclusively stored in the U.S. and Singapore and is not subject to any Chinese law. Additionally, TikTok has held that the CCP has no influence over it. Nonetheless, corporations including Wells Fargo have banned the app from its workforce, as has the Pentagon. China experts mention the primary differentiator between TikTok and similar apps which also collect droves of personal data is simply the country of origin, which may give some truth to the company’s claims that the President’s accusations are based on political pretext. Further, as noted by Samm Sacks, a China digital economy and cybersecurity policy fellow at the think tank New America, since TikTok is one of the first tech companies from China operating in the global scene, the Chinese government is incentivized to keep it out of any suspicious activity. Kaiser Kuo, former executive at Chinese tech giant Baidu, agrees: “I think the incentives are lined up for them not to just ride roughshod over privacy.”

With regard to data privacy issues, consensus seems to indicate that the company collects no more data than other popular social media sites like Facebook. In addition to data requested during registration, as per TikTok’s U.S. privacy policy, the app stores information about videos watched, time spent on the app, private messages, country location, and device type. The company seems fairly receptive to concerns; when a user discovered the app was accessing iPhone content every few seconds (even when the app was just running in the background), the company removed this feature, claiming it was an anti-spam measure. Furthermore, TikTok appears to collect less data than Facebook, as it does not track users across devices or when one’s phone is off. While there is no proof that their behavior is any worse than American tech giants, privacy experts suggest it is nevertheless important to remain wary of any app with access to personal data, especially if data collection policies are not fully transparent. All in all, however, the administration’s concerns about TikTok seem rather unfounded.