A security change at the social-media giant may affect users in the U.S.
If you spend any time on social media, chances are you’ve used or heard of short-video-sharing platform TikTok.
TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance, boasts more than 1 billion users worldwide and has become a concern for competitors like Facebook parent Meta Platforms (META) – Get Free Report and Alphabet’s (GOOGL) – Get Free Report YouTube.
TikTok has an estimated 80 million monthly active U.S.-based users and was the top downloaded app in 2021.
But the social-media giants aren’t the only ones worried about TikTok. U.S. regulators in recent years have expressed concern about TikTok, citing the app as a potential threat to national security. In 2020, the Trump administration tried to ban TikTok or force a sale to an American company, but that effort failed.
Ongoing Security Threats Worry Regulators
Trump’s move may have fallen through, but efforts to mitigate online risk have been ongoing.
The Biden administration has been working on a similar deal to allay security concerns: Rather than asking ByteDance to spin off TikTok’s business into a stateside operation, the president is seeking compliance measures via a third party that would ensure data capturing and surveillance is mitigated.
These measures purportedly include a partnership with several auditors, source-code inspectors, and other neutral cybersecurity and user-data monitors to help migrate data from proprietary TikTok servers to U.S.-based Oracle (ORCL) – Get Free Report servers.
These third-party roles would be approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. and would report to the U.S. government.
Is TikTok User Security Changing?
But the proposal may be dead.
TikTok late last month informed prospective candidates for these security roles that the hiring process would be halted, citing “recent developments,” according to Reuters,
The company said it hoped to have an update by late January, though no clarification on the nature of the hold was provided.
Neither the White House nor CFIUS commented on the freeze.
The sudden pivot may strengthen the argument for many TikTok skeptics, who would prefer to see Biden ban the app altogether in the name of security and data protection.
ByteDance Hacked Journalist TikTok Accounts
The halt to this initiative comes on the heels of a scandal in late December, when ByteDance hacked several journalists’ TikTok accounts to source a leak.
One of those journalists, Emily White, claimed on Twitter that her account had been hacked to identify her location and sources.
TikTok has since apologized and fired the employees involved.
Should the proposed U.S. security measures go through, how extensive they’d be — or how much protection they’d offer users — is unclear.
Still, removing the security measures that would ostensibly keep TikTok viable in the U.S. presents a major blow to American security efforts.
Anti-TikTok hawks like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) have called the app a “Trojan Horse for the Chinese Communist Party” and “a major security risk to the United States.” In December Hawley introduced a bill to ban TikTok on all federal employees’ phones.
Many lawmakers and regulators may share Hawley’s sentiment — the bill passed unanimously in the Senate — but TikTok remains highly popular and few users are likely to give it up willingly.
Which means only that while the U.S. and ByteDance work out their disagreements, user data may remain exposed and outsourced indefinitely.