Grandma trying to rap was one of the most shared TIkTok videos this year, but her late-start career might not get off the ground. The U.S. government is about to investigate the app for “national security risks”. Grandma herself may not be a national security risk, but her data--and the data of hundreds of millions of others--could be a goldmine for Beijing. Or, it could just be another case of America crying wolf in the middle of an all-out tech war.
For those unfamiliar with it, the app allows users to create, upload and share videos up to 15 seconds long using various editing tools and effects that enable lip-syncing and a number of other filters.
TikTok’s numbers are staggering.
Launched only in 2017, it is the current number one app downloaded in the iOS store. It is estimated that in the first quarter of 2019, more than 220 million app downloads occurred between Google Play and Apple’s iOS store. Some 60% of its U.S. users are aged between 16 and 24.
Even Islamic State propagandists are reportedly trying to exploit this song-and-dance social media tool for the purpose of recruitment. Last month, around two dozen ISIS-related accounts were removed from the platform.
Even though none of the accounts appear to have been particularly popular, it featured people singing ISIS songs, and women affirming a “jihadist” stance, often with hearts and stars floating across the screen.
Now, back to the real reason for the investigation.
Last week, the US Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS) launched a national security investigation into TikTok after a couple of lawmakers penned a letter to a U.S. intelligence official demanding a security assessment.
In an open letter, two senior US politicians, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York), described TikTok as "a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore”.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio had also called for a CFIUS review of TikTok specifically, claiming there is “ample and growing evidence” that the Chinese government censors content on the platform. “These Chinese-owned apps are increasingly being used to censor content and silence open discussion on topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese Government and Communist Party,” Rubio wrote.
As for TikTok, the lawmakers expressed concern that China's internet laws force companies in the country to cooperate with its Chinese Communist Party. They also questioned the company’s data collection practices to determine whether the Chinese government has any say in what content Americans see on the app.
The company dismissed the concerns in a statement saying that the company takes “these issues incredibly seriously”. In the post, TikTok committed to keeping the data of U.S. citizens secure and out of the hands of the Chinese government.
As a result, last Friday the U.S. government has launched a national security review of TikTok owner Beijing ByteDance’s $1 billion acquisition of U.S. social media app Musical.ly.
Even though the acquisition was completed two years ago, CFIUS, has started to review the deal due to the fact that TikTok did not seek clearance from CFIUS when it made the acquisition.
It should come as no surprise that the U.S. government even got support from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, one of TikTok’s competitors. Facebook has been quick to call out its rival over censorship concerns and potential Chinese government influence.
For investors, it’s a tricky minefield to navigate right now.
And now, it’s about to heat up further as media quarrel over whether ByteDance is planning to go public in Hong Kong. Last week, the Financial Times said the company was eyeing and IPO, but ByteDance later denied that report in comments to Reuters.
By Michael Scott for Safehaven.com