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‘Spy balloon in your phone’: growing calls to ban TikTok threaten its future

The TikTok logo on a mobile phone, with the US flag behind

‘Spy balloon in your phone’: growing calls to ban TikTok threaten its future

US legislation could block the social media app as fears of Chinese state surveillance increase

The Chinese spy balloon that hovered over the US last month did not just damage relations between Beijing and Washington, it also cast a shadow over the future of TikTok.

Last week, a US congressional committee backed legislation that would give the US president the power to ban the Chinese-owned social video app. The Republican chair of the committee, Michael McCaul, said the incident had reinforced fears of Chinese state surveillance, describing TikTok as a “spy balloon in your phone”.

It came days after Canada announced it would join the US in barring TikTok from government mobile devices because of security concerns. The EU’s executive arm and the European parliament have also banned the app from staff phones.

TikTok faces the threat of these narrow bans escalating. Banning the app entirely would leave a big gap in the social media consumption of the US alone, where TikTok has more than 100 million users. Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was ambivalent about going further. “This may be the first step, this may be the only step we need to take,” he said.

McCaul’s bill has some way to go before becoming law, requiring approval by both legislative bodies in Congress before reaching Joe Biden, but it joins other pieces of legislation with similar aims. In the Senate, the Republican Josh Hawley has introduced an act to ban TikTok nationwide, while fellow Republican senator Marco Rubio is behind similar legislation. The US ban of TikTok on federal devices adds to similar measures by a host of states including Texas, South Dakota and Virginia that prohibited state employees from using the app on their government-issued devices.

Free speech groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are on alert as efforts to ban TikTok progress, arguing it would violate first amendment rights. McCaul’s bill, which moved more quickly than the ACLU anticipated, is also overly broad and would impose sanctions on any company that may be directly or indirectly “subject to the influence of China”, according to the ACLU senior policy counsel, Jenna Leventoff. That could “loop in a lot of companies outside of TikTok”, she said.

It is unclear how a US-wide ban on TikTok would be implemented and the bill provides few guidelines or limitations. “It means that they can do whatever they think they need to do to prevent citizens from engaging with a company that meets the relevant criteria,” Leventoff said.

The text of McCaul’s bill quotes Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, who warns that TikTok’s parent is “controlled by the Chinese government”. He said the Chinese state can influence people by manipulating the algorithm that curates what people view on TikTok, as well as giving the government the opportunity to collect user data for “traditional espionage operations”.

Michael McCaul, the Republican chair of the house foreign affairs committee.

TikTok has denied that its data, or algorithm, is accessed by the Chinese state. Last year it was reported that the US tech firm Oracle had begun auditing TikTok’s algorithms and content moderation models to ensure they were not being manipulated by Chinese authorities.

Despite longstanding scepticism about TikTok’s independence from the Chinese state, no hard evidence has been produced to prove there has been state access to its user data or the app’s algorithm. However, TikTok’s credibility was damaged last year when its parent company, ByteDance, admitted employees had attempted to use the app to spy on reporters as part of a leak investigation. Four staff members were fired as a result.

But Leventoff argues the collection and sharing of user data is not just a TikTok problem; it is an industry-wide problem and one that requires an industry-wide solution such as a federal data privacy law, which the US does not currently have.

The committee vote and phone bans have taken place against the backdrop of an investigation into TikTok by the committee on foreign investment in the US [CFIUS], which reviews investments by foreign entities in US businesses.

TikTok believes it had an outline deal in place with CFIUS. Its key components are: TikTok will store data from American users in the US on servers run by Oracle; Oracle will monitor TikTok’s algorithms and source code; Oracle will vet app updates and deliver them to the Google and Apple app stores; and TikTok will create a board of security experts that will oversee its US operations and report to the US government.

A TikTok spokesperson said: “We are two years and $1.5bn [£1.25bn] deep into a project to go above and beyond existing law to secure the US version of the TikTok platform. The swiftest and most thorough way to address national security concerns is for CFIUS to adopt the proposed agreement that we worked with them on for nearly two years.”

However, the process appears to be in limbo as it awaits signoff from the White House, in the shadow of a surveillance balloon.

“The Oracle deal would mitigate any risk and would work, but it’s got an uphill battle to win political acceptance,” said James Lewis, a senior vice-president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US thinktank.

In the UK, the director of the spy agency GCHQ, Jeremy Fleming, said last year he would not be concerned if his children used TikTok. However, a group of Conservative politicians, including the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith MP, have urged Downing Street and senior ministers to shut down their TikTok accounts after parliament closed its own account in August last year following a lobbying campaign.

Duncan Smith said TikTok should be banned on government devices and ministers’ personal telephones because the app is a “threat” and a “data harvester”. Citing China’s national intelligence law of 2022, which states that all organisations and citizens must cooperate with national intelligence efforts, he added: “Chinese companies must support the Chinese intelligence services whenever required.”

However, a UK ban has been ruled out by Michelle Donelan, the secretary of state for science, innovation and technology. Speaking to Politico this week, she said: “We have no evidence to suggest that there is a necessity to ban people from using TikTok. That would be a very, very forthright move … that would require a significant evidence base to be able to do that.”