Earlier this summer, the U.S. government announced it was considering banning Chinese social media apps, including the popular app TikTok. In August, President Trump signed two executive orders to block transactions with ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, and Tencent, which owns the popular messaging service and commercial platform WeChat, and another executive order requiring ByteDance to sell or spin off its U.S. TikTok business within 90 days, as well as to destroy all its copies of TikTok data attached to U.S. users. As companies including Microsoft, Walmart, and Oracle have expressed interest in buying the app, TikTok is suing the U.S. government, accusing the Trump administration of depriving it of due process.
The proposed ban, according to the Trump administration, is intended to safeguard the privacy of U.S. citizens and shield data about them — and government officials — from the Chinese government. Trump’s August 6 executive order claims TikTok could “allow China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.” But, is TikTok really a threat? And if it is, what are the possible consequences of these actions by the U.S.?
As researchers who have studied similar bans on technologies, we believe that this chain of events could have sweeping impacts on the business community, which will likely not be confined to the tech sector.
What Is the Threat?
If data collection by a company with overseas connections comprises a threat, there are threats all around. The data that TikTok collects pales in comparison to, say, what most American tech companies (as well as banks, credit agencies, and hotels) collect, both visibly and less so. Many institutions that collect sensitive data have already been hacked — it is estimated that there is a cyber attack every 39 seconds — and much of that information is for sale on the Dark Web. If the Chinese government wanted the kind of information TikTok could collect, it could be obtained in many other ways.
What will likely prove a more pressing threat to U.S. customers is much more low-tech: Setting a precedent of banning everyday technologies could quickly spiral out of control and seriously disrupt almost all international trade.
A Growing Trend
While the case against TikTok may seem novel, it’s actually just the most recent high-profile incident in a string of cases of countries banning products or services over alleged cybersecurity concerns. In our research, we have studied more than 75 such events involving more than 31 countries going back almost 20 years, though most occurred in the past five years. For example, in 2017, Germany banned My Friend Carly — a doll from the U.S. that you could talk to you — because the conversation was processed by servers in the U.S. In 2016, Russia blocked access to LinkedIn, stating that LinkedIn refused to store personal data of Russian users in Russia. In 2017 U.S. blocked the Russian security company Kaspersky over its alleged ties to the Russian government.
These cases build on…