TikTok: genuine threat or victim of overhyped geopolitics?

Countries across North America and Europe are advising government workers to ban the Chinese-owned app from official devices – but what is the real reason behind the antipathy towards TikTok?

The United States, Canada, the European Commission, and the United Kingdom have all advised government officials to uninstall TikTok – and to do so quickly.

A head of steam is building against the short-form video app, which could spell disaster for the future of TikTok. Headlines have spread like wildfire, suggesting that those involved in the running of government should not use the app any more – but there has been little guidance as to what ordinary users should do.

So far, countries that have advised government staff to uninstall TikTok have cited non-specific security issues. For its part, the app, owned by Chinese company Bytedance, says it has not been informed as to what the problem is, and claims to be as puzzled as anyone else.

So what’s going on? Is TikTok a major security concern that should worry us all? Or is something bigger, around geopolitics, at play here?

The background

More than a billion people use TikTok, including around one in four in the UK and more than 150 million across Europe. Any suggestion that they’re at risk by keeping the app on their phones would therefore be hugely damaging to its reputation. A similar ban by India in June 2020 due to geopolitical reasons wiped 200 million users off its total user base in an instant – something the app did manage to survive, but only because of its strong growth elsewhere.

But as of yet no country that has banned TikTok from government devices has taken the further step of advising ordinary members of the public to uninstall it. It’s notable that this hasn’t happened, because it suggests any security concern, if it exists, is limited in scope.

Instead, the double standards suggest there could be a less security-focused reason for the recent, seemingly coordinated, announcements among different countries and supranational bodies worldwide: geopolitics.

Tech realpolitik

As much as TikTok likes to downplay its links to China – even to the extent of saying its parent company, ByteDance, is based in the Cayman Islands tax haven rather than Beijing – there is an indubitable connection that can’t be ignored. The app was born in China, and even if it’s now increasingly localised, that connection is something it can’t shake.

This is hobbling TikTok’s development and growth worldwide, because its ties to the Asian superpower can be weaponized by China-sceptic politicians and used against it.

Those who believe TikTok is a risk fear that its ties to China will see it required to hand over user data to the authoritarian government there if asked.

TikTok, for its part, denies it has ever been asked to do so – and says it would refuse if asked. Nonetheless, increasingly skeptical governments are asking questions of the app provider that it will struggle to answer.

As yet, there’s no evidence that TikTok is more dangerous to users than any other app installed on their phones – but that doesn’t mean such evidence won’t surface in the future.

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