Banning TikTok is a Terrible Idea

Instead of playing whack-a-mole against Chinese tech companies, the U.S. should develop standards for how all companies, regardless of country of origin, protect online privacy and secure data.

The mere fact that a Chinese company handles U.S. citizen data in and of itself may not necessarily warrant banning investment under CFIUS or blacklisting a specific company for use in the U.S. The U.S. national security risks should be evaluated based on an investigation, with regular audits, to determine (a) what kind of U.S. citizen data is being accessed (for example, metadata, images, geographic data, critical infrastructure data), (b) how that data is being used and what data protection measures are in place to protect the rights and interests of U.S. consumers, and (c) with whom that data is being shared and through what mechanisms. If, based on the outcomes of such an evaluation, the U.S. government cannot verify that the interests and rights of U.S. consumers will be protected, then that company should be prohibited from storing and sharing U.S. personal data.

Such an assessment also must consider what intelligence value the data collected on TikTok’s platform would provide to Beijing. Videos of lip syncing and dancing are of limited strategic use even for an “adversary government” (which the Trump administration is increasingly calling China) — whether to target individuals for coercion or even as used in aggregate form as part of a mass collection effort. In this way, the data security risk posed by TikTok is different from that of Grindr, the gay dating app acquired by a Chinese gaming company deemed a national security threat by CFIUS. In the case of Grindr, there was potential for blackmail if data on intimate relationships could be triangulated with, say, the national security personnel data presumed to have been obtained by the Chinese government in a security breach of the Office of Personnel Management. It’s still a hypothetical risk, but unlike the TikTok case, there is at least some clear articulation of what harm could result.

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