Everyone in Washington is talking about a TikTok ban. But is it really a national security threat?

Industry news

After TikTok CEO Shou Chew testified for more than five hours on Thursday before a Congressional committee, one thing was clear: US lawmakers remain convinced that TikTok is an urgent threat to national security.

The hearing, Chew’s first appearance before Congress, kicked off with a lawmaker calling for TikTok to be banned and remained combative throughout. A number of lawmakers expressed deep skepticism about TikTok’s efforts to safeguard US user data and ease concerns about its ties to China. Nothing Chew said appeared to move the needle.

The rhetoric inside and outside the hearing room highlighted the growing, bipartisan momentum for cracking down on the app in the United States. As the hearing was taking place, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he supports legislation that would effectively ban TikTok; Secretary of State Antony Blinken said TikTok should be “ended one way or another,” and the Treasury Department issued a statement vowing to “safeguard national security,” without mentioning TikTok by name.

Concerns about TikTok’s connections to China have led governments worldwide to ban the app on official devices, and those fears have factored into the increasingly tense US-China relationship. But the remarks across the federal government on Thursday, combined with a prior threat from the Biden administration to impose a nationwide ban unless TikTok’s Chinese owners sell their stakes, shows that a complete ban of the hugely popular app very much remains a live possibility.

However, more than two years after the Trump administration first issued a similar threat to TikTok, evidence remains unclear about whether the app is a national security threat. Security experts say the government’s fears, while serious, currently appear to reflect only the potential for TikTok to be used for foreign intelligence, not that it has been. There is still no public evidence the Chinese government has actually spied on people through TikTok.

TikTok doesn’t operate in China. But since the Chinese government enjoys significant leverage over businesses under its jurisdiction, the theory goes that ByteDance, and thus indirectly, TikTok, could be forced to cooperate with a broad range of security activities, including possibly the transfer of TikTok data.

“It’s not that we know TikTok has done something, it’s that distrust of China and awareness of Chinese espionage has increased,” said James Lewis, an information security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The context for TikTok is much worse as trust in China vanishes.”

When Rob Joyce, the National Security Agency’s director of cybersecurity, was asked by reporters in December to articulate his security concerns about TikTok, he offered a general warning rather than a specific allegation.

“People are always looking for the smoking gun in these technologies,” Joyce said. “I characterize it much more as a loaded gun.”

Technical experts also draw a distinction between the TikTok app — which appears to operate very similarly to American social media in the amount of user tracking and data collection it performs — and TikTok’s approach to governance and ownership. It’s the latter that’s been the biggest source of concern, not the former.