Lotus Ruan, who has conducted technical analysis of Chinese apps such as WeChat and is currently a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab research group in Toronto, echoes this sentiment: “With the rise of TikTok and Chinese apps going global, [people] looking at Chinese programs with a magnifying glass.’ As a result, the risks are often exaggerated.
The actual differences between these programs and the American ones are quite small, Ruan says. In 2021, a technical review of TikTok by Ruan’s colleague reported that he “did not observe [TikTok or its Chinese version Douyin] collecting contact lists, recording and sending photos, audio, video or geolocation coordinates without the user’s permission.” (On the other hand, WeChat has been found to monitor chats even on accounts not registered in China.)
“Now we have a tendency to securitize everything,” Ruan says, “that’s important, but we have to be very careful when we apply the national security system to data.” Concerns about what these programs might have done should be based on actual technical research, not speculation and innuendo, she says.
Even so, journalists and those in political circles should keep a close eye on how these apps handle their data, paying particular attention to whether any user data is transmitted back to China.
As Xu told me, there are legitimate national security concerns about what happens to US users’ data when it enters China’s borders. China is developing a legal framework to protect personal data, but it focuses on holding private companies accountable without limiting what data the government receives from companies and what it does with that data.
There are things that companies like ByteDance, which owns TikTok, can do to address these issues. For years, ByteDance has promised to store and process American data only in the U.S., but there are still reports that the company’s engineers in China are improperly accessing the data of American users. “There are a few things they said they were going to do, but they didn’t. I think that’s a problem,” Xu says. Enforcing the separation of user data—and using third-party audits to prove it’s being done—would be a first step.
The political narrative surrounding TikTok as a national security threat may turn some users away — if TikTok doesn’t benefit government employees, should I be concerned and stay away from it? But unless the US government bans TikTok outright, I believe many others will continue to use it.
The reality is that at the end of the day, very few American users actively think about which country an app comes from. Many people will simply weigh the benefits and risks: Are silly videos entertaining enough to justify the risk of their data being exposed to companies and possibly government officials?