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Why a TikTok ban will do little to protect user privacy

Written by Jeff Chay Published on   3 mins read

Banning TikTok is unlikely to address wider concerns regarding data harvesting and trading.

In March, a proposed bill, which would force ByteDance to sell TikTok or face the short video platform’s nationwide ban, was approved by the US House of Representatives. With the prospect of offloading TikTok’s assets being hampered by the vast size of ByteDance’s patent portfolio and China’s control over technological exports, an outright ban seems the more probable outcome if the bill is approved by the Senate. However, banning TikTok would likely fail to effectively protect users’ data from China—or any other country, for that matter.

US lawmakers claim that banning TikTok would be beneficial to national security due to fears that the company might, due to certain legal obligations, share US user data with the Chinese government. Yet, there is a lack of concrete evidence that TikTok has leaked user information to the Chinese government. In 2020, The Washington Post reported “scant evidence” that TikTok was sharing US data with the Chinese authorities, while a 2021 Citizen Lab study similarly found a lack of overtly malicious behavior in its analysis of TikTok.

It is improbable that banning TikTok alone would safeguard user data given that a considerable amount of US user data has been—and is still being—amassed by both foreign and domestic tech players. Google was fined USD 391.5 million in 2022 for illegally tracking users’ locations, while Facebook was fined USD 5 billion by the US Federal Trade Commission in 2019 over a slew of data privacy breaches.

According to The Washington Post, TikTok does not collect any more data than its domestic counterparts, raising questions as to whether banning the platform would realistically enhance user privacy in the absence of similar legislations pertaining to other companies that collect user data.

User data can also be traded globally in legal markets through third-party data brokers. According to a report published by NATO in 2020, LiveRamp, one of the largest brokers based in the US, has access to over 1,500 data points on 2.5 billion people worldwide.

In an attempt to curb third-party data trading, US President Joe Biden signed an order in February blocking the sale of information by US brokers to buyers based in “countries of concern” such as China, Russia, and North Korea. However, enforcing this directive has proved challenging due to difficulties in verifying buyer locations and preventing the sale of data to intermediaries who can subsequently sell it on to red-listed countries.

To complicate matters, tech companies are not classified as brokers and can thus sell data directly to any foreign buyer. As such, existing legislation is insufficient to prevent the leakage of US data to foreign adversaries.

Notwithstanding legal barriers, digital information can ultimately still be collected and traded illegally. For example, the New York Times reported in 2018 that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica was able to illicitly gather private data from over 50 million Facebook users without their consent to influence the 2016 US presidential elections.

In light of these challenges, Calli Schroeder, a senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), has labeled the proposed ban an act of “security theater”, representing a mere drop in the ocean in addressing national security concerns.

As the bill stalls in the Senate, the door is open for further lobbying from TikTok, which has been aggressively rallying its US users, urging them to call their senators and tell them to vote against the ban.

In any case, China is prepared to block any potential sale, although whether the bill will pass into law remains to be seen.


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