Last week it became clear that British ministers and civil servants are no longer allowed to use the popular video app on business phones, tablets and other devices. This also happened earlier this year in the US, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, and at the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament.
‘Potential danger and risk’
The call to ban TikTok has been going on for years, but has gained momentum this year. The reason for this, said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo earlier this month, is that the potential threat posed by the social media app has increased in recent times.
“There is Chinese legislation that could make it possible for Chinese security services to view information that TikTok collects, for example from federal officials. It is a potential danger and a risk that we do not want to take,” said De Croo.
TikTok is owned by the Chinese technology company ByteDance. The extremely popular app for short (music) videos among young people was released in 2016. There is also a censored version for the Chinese market, called Douyin. In 2017, the Chinese app Musical.ly was also acquired and integrated into the international version of TikTok. It is now available in more than 150 countries and now has more than a billion active users. In the Netherlands, an estimated three million people have installed the app on their phones.
The popularity of TikTok among the general public has led to politicians and civil servants also using the app, including in the Netherlands. “The use of TikTok is also under discussion in The Hague,” says political reporter Stephan Koole. “There is a majority in the House of Representatives for a ban when it comes to installing and using the TikTok app on the phones of government officials. A decision will most likely be made this week. Possibly today.”
At the request of State Secretary Alexandra van Huffelen (Kingdom Relations and Digitization), the AIVD intelligence service has looked into the dangers of TikTok. A spokesman for Van Huffelen informs RTL Nieuws that this AIVD advice has now been received. “Inquiries are being made about which other countries are taking steps when it comes to TikTok and what the basis is. Based on that, we will make a well-considered decision,” he says.
Whether data from TikTok actually fell into the wrong hands is unknown. “Perhaps certain intelligence services have more information about this, but this is not publicly known,” says security researcher Daan Keuper of cybersecurity company Computest. “So we can’t really say much about that.”
For example, TikTok has no more access to user data than other social media apps, such as Facebook and Instagram, which also request location data and access to contacts. Yet Keuper understands that more and more governments are being so careful. “It is a company that is a lot closer to the Chinese government than Facebook and Instagram are to the US government. TikTok says itself: we will never cooperate with a request from the Chinese government, but how realistic is that? really the finger behind.”
The security expert calls TikTok particularly suitable for influencing people. “Your public opinion is formed by what you see around you. TikTok understands in no time where your preferences lie, what your fears are and what you are or are not sensitive to. It would therefore be the ultimate tool for influence campaigns, such as in elections.”
The US in particular is hostile when it comes to using TikTok. On Thursday, CEO Shou Zi Chew will come to the US Congress to testify before a special committee set up over concerns about the access the Communist Party of China would have to private data of TikTok users. It also talks about the impact that harmful content on TikTok has on children. It is expected that Shou will be put to the test.
Meanwhile, the FBI and the US prosecution are investigating ByteDance for spying on American journalists via the app. Employees of the Chinese company are said to have used location data and other personal data of American journalists to keep an eye on them via the TikTok app. They reportedly wanted to find out who the sources of the journalists were.
The Biden administration is even considering a total ban on TikTok in the US market. That could then only be prevented if parent company ByteDance decides to sell TikTok. However, such a forced sale is not easily arranged: it would undoubtedly result in a legal battle.
There is also a good chance that American apps will be banned in other countries. For example, the Russian government has banned Kremlin officials from using iPhones. This measure is taken out of fear of espionage by Western intelligence services.
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