There have been grumblings about TikTok being a national security risk for many years and they’re getting louder with each passing month. Indeed, in the United States a bill has been presented to ban TikTok (“The ANTI-SOCIAL CCP ACT“) and a separate bill (“No TikTok on Government Devices Act“) has passed the Senate and would bar the application from being used on government devices. In Canada, the Prime Minister noted that the country’s signals intelligence agency, the Communications Security Establishment, is “watching very carefully.”
I recently provided commentary where I outlined some of the potential risks associated with TikTok and where it likely should fit into Canada’s national security priorities (spoiler: probably pretty low). Here I just want to expand on my comments a bit to provide some deeper context and reflections.
As with all things security-related you need to think through what assets you are attempting to protect, the sensitivity of what you’re trying to protect, and what measures are more or less likely to protect those assets. Further, in developing a protection strategy you need to think through how many resources you’re willing to invest to achieve the sought-after protection. This applies as much to national security policy makers as it does to individuals trying to secure devices or networks.
What Is Being Protected
Most public figures who talk about TikTok and national security are presently focused on one or two assets.
First, they worry that a large volume of data may be collected and used by Chinese government agencies, after these agencies receive it either voluntarily from TikTok or after compelling its disclosure. Commentators argue that Chinese companies are bound to obey the national security laws of China and, as such, may be forced to disclose data without any notice to users or non-Chinese government agencies. This information could be used to obtain information about specific individuals or communities, inclusive of what people are searching on the platform (e.g., medical information, financial information, sexual preference information), what they are themselves posting and could be embarrassing, or metadata which could be used for subsequent targeting.
Second, commentators are adopting a somewhat odious language of ‘cognitive warfare’ in talking about TikTok. The argument is that the Chinese government might compel the company to modify its algorithms so as to influence what people are seeing on the platform. The intent of this modification would be to influence political preferences or social and cultural perceptions. Some worry this kind of influence could guide whom individuals are more likely to vote for (e.g., you see a number of videos that directly or indirectly encourage you to support particular political parties), cause generalised apathy (e.g., you see videos that suggest that all parties are bad and none worth voting for), or enhance societal tensions (e.g., work to inflame partisanship and impair the functioning of otherwise moderate democracies). Or, as likely, a combination of each of these kinds of influence operations. Moreover, the TikTok algorithm could be modified by government compulsion to prioritise videos that praise some countries or that suppress videos which negatively portray other countries.
What Is the Sensitivity of the Assets?
When we consider the sensitivity of the information and data which is collected by TikTok it can be potentially high but, in practice, possesses differing sensitivities based on the person(s) in question. Research conducted by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found that while TikTok does collect a significant volume of information, that volume largely parallels what Facebook or other Western companies collect. To put this slightly differently, a lot of information is collected and the sensitivity is associated with whom it belongs to, who may have access to it, and what those parties do with it.
When we consider who is using TikTok and having their information uploaded to the company’s servers, then, the question becomes whether there is a particular national security risk linked with this activity. While some individuals may potentially be targets based on their political, business, or civil society bonafides this will not be the case with all (or most) users. However, in even assessing the national security risks linked to individuals (or associated groups) it’s helpful to do a little more thinking.
First, the amount of information that is collected by TikTok, when merged with other data which could theoretically be collected using other signals intelligence methods (e.g., extracting metadata and select content from middle-boxes, Internet platforms, open-source locations, etc) could be very revealing. Five Eyes countries (i.e., Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America) collect large volumes of metadata on vast swathes of the world’s populations in order to develop patterns of life which, when added together, can be deeply revelatory. When and how those countries’ intelligence agencies actually use the collected information varies and is kept very secretive. Generally, however, only a small subset of individuals whose information is collected and retained for any period of time have actions taken towards them. Nonetheless, we know that there is a genuine concern about information from private companies being obtained by intelligence services in the Five Eyes and it’s reasonable to be concerned that similar activities might be undertaken by Chinese intelligence services.
Second, the kinds of content information which are retained by TikTok could be embarrassing at a future time, or used by state agencies in ways that users would not expect or prefer. Imagine a situation where a young person says or does something on TikTok which is deeply offensive. Fast forward 3-4 years and their parents are diplomats or significant members of the business community, and that offensive content is used by Chinese security services to embarrass or otherwise inconvenience the parents. Such influence operations might impede Canada’s ability to conduct its diplomacy abroad or undermine the a business’s ability to prosper.
Third, the TikTok algorithm is not well understood. There is a risk that the Chinese government might compel ByteDance, and through them the TikTok platform, to modify algorithms to amplify some content and not others. It is hard to assess how ‘sensitive’ a population’s general sense of the world is but, broadly, if a surreptitious foreign influence operation occurred it might potentially affect how a population behaves or sees the world. To be clear this kind of shift in behaviour would not follow from a single video but from a concerted effort over time that shifted social perceptions amongst at least some distinct social communities. The sensitivity of the information used to identify videos to play, then, could be quite high across a substantial swathe of the population using the platform.
It’s important to recognise that in the aforementioned examples there is no evidence that ByteDance, which owns TikTok, has been compelled by the Chinese government to perform these activities. But these are the kinds of sensitivities that are linked to using TikTok and are popularly discussed.
What Should Be Done To Protect Assets?
The threats which are posed by TikTok are, at the moment, specious: it could be used for any number of things. Why people are concerned are linked less to the algorithm or data that is collected but, instead, to ByteDance being a Chinese company that might be influenced by the Chinese government to share data or undertake activities which are deleterious to Western countries’ interests.
Bluntly: the issue raised by TikTok is not necessarily linked to the platform itself but to the geopolitical struggles between China and other advanced economies throughout the world. We don’t have a TikTok problem per se but, instead, have a Chinese national security and foreign policy problem. TikTok is just a very narrow lens through which concerns and fears are being channelled.
So in the absence of obvious and deliberate harmful activities being undertaken by ByteDance and TikTok at the behest of the Chinese government what should be done? At the outset it’s worth recognising that many of the concerns expressed by politicians–and especially those linked to surreptitious influence operations–would already run afoul of Canadian law. The CSIS Act bars clandestine foreign intelligence operations which are regarded as threatening the security of Canada. Specifically, threats to the security of Canada means:
(a) espionage or sabotage that is against Canada or is detrimental to the interests of Canada or activities directed toward or in support of such espionage or sabotage,
(b) foreign influenced activities within or relating to Canada that are detrimental to the interests of Canada and are clandestine or deceptive or involve a threat to any person,
(c) activities within or relating to Canada directed toward or in support of the threat or use of acts of serious violence against persons or property for the purpose of achieving a political, religious or ideological objective within Canada or a foreign state, and
(d) activities directed toward undermining by covert unlawful acts, or directed toward or intended ultimately to lead to the destruction or overthrow by violence of, the constitutionally established system of government in Canada,
CSIS is authorised to undertake measures which would reduce the threats to the security of Canada, perhaps in partnership with the Communications Security Establishment, should such a threat be identified and a warrant obtained from the federal court.
On the whole a general ban on TikTok is almost certainly disproportionate and unreasonable at this point in time. There is no evidence of harm. There is no evidence of influence by the Chinese government. Rather than banning the platform generally I think that more focused legislation or policy could make sense.
First, I think that legislation or (preferably) policies precluding at least some members of government and senior civil servants from using TikTok has some merit. In these cases a risk analysis should be conducted to determine if collected information would undermine the Government of Canada’s ability to secure confidential information or if the collected information could be used for intelligence operations against the government officials. Advice might, also, be issued by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service so that private organisations are aware of their risks. In exceptional situations some kind of security requirements might also be imposed on private organisations and individuals, such as those who are involved in especially sensitive roles managing critical infrastructure systems. Ultimately, I suspect the number of people who should fall under this ban would, and should, be pretty small.
Second, what makes sense is legislation that requires social media companies writ large–not just TikTok–to make their algorithms and data flows legible to regulators. Moreover, individual users should be able to learn, and understand, why certain content is being prioritised or shown to them. Should platforms decline to comply with such a the law then sanctions may be merited. Similarly, should algorithmic legibility showcase that platforms are being manipulated or developed in ways that deliberately undermine social cohesion then some sanctions might be merited, though with the caveat that “social cohesion” should be understood as referring to platforms being deliberately designed to incite rage or other strong emotions with the effect of continually, and artificially, weakening social cohesion and amplifying social cleavages. The term should not, however, be seen as a kind of code for creating exclusionary social environments where underprivileged groups continue to be treated in discriminatory ways.
So Is TikTok ‘Dangerous’ From A National Security Perspective?
Based on open source information there is no reason to think that TikTok is currently a national security threat. Are there any risks associated with the platform? Sure, but they need to be juxtaposed against equivalent or more serious threats and priorities. We only have so many resources to direct towards the growing legion of legitimate national security risks and issues; funnelling a limited set of resources towards TikTok may not be the best kind of prioritisation.
Consider that while the Chinese government could compel TikTok to disclose information about its users to intelligence and security services…the same government could also use business cutouts and purchase much of the same information from data brokers operating in the United States and other jurisdictions. There would be no need to secretly force a company to do something when, instead, it could just lawfully acquire equivalent (or more extensive!) information. This is a pressing and real national security (and privacy!) issue and is deserving of legislative scrutiny and attention.
Further, while there is a risk that TikTok could be used to manipulate social values…the same is true of other social networking services. Indeed, academic and journalistic research over the past 5-7 years has drawn attention to how popular social media services are designed to deliver dopamine hits and keep us on them. We know that various private companies and public organisations around the world work tirelessly to ‘hack’ those algorithms and manipulate social values. Of course this broader manipulation doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care but, also, makes clear that TikTok isn’t the sole vector of these efforts. Moreover, there are real questions about the how well social influence campaigns work: do they influence behaviour–are they supplying change?–or is the efficaciousness of any campaign representative of an attentive and interested pre-existing audience–is demand for the content the problem?
The nice thing about banning, blocking, or censoring material, or undertaking some other kind of binary decision, is that you feel like you’ve done something. Bans, blocks, and censors are typically designed for a black and white world. We, however, live in a world that is actually shrouded in greys. We only have so much legislative time, so much policy capacity, so much enforcement ability: it should all be directed efficiently to understanding, appreciating, and addressing the fulness of the challenges facing states and society. This time and effort should not be spent on performative politics that is great for providing a dopamine hit but which fails to address the real underlying issues.