National security has made its way out of the five walls of the Pentagon into our daily lives as it’s plastered all over mainstream media with global conflicts, including the high-profile war in Ukraine. While most people tend to associate national security and defense with the military-industrial complex, missiles, weapons, fighter jets, etc., space and cyber domains are the future of warfare, and both have a significant impact on our critical infrastructure.
Critical infrastructure encompasses everything from banking and finance to electricity and health care, which would leave us paralyzed as a country if a breach occurs in any of these branches. So how does this all relate to a commercial company called TikTok?
TikTok is a platform used for entertainment, just like Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. It came onto the social media scene in 2016 and quickly became popular among users aged 10 to 29, who make up about 60% of TikTok’s audience. With viral dance videos, pranks and cooking reels, TikTok exploded into billions of homes around the world during the COVID-19 shutdown.
There are over 130 million users in the United States alone. According to TikTok, the platform in the U.S. is made up of 60% female, 40% male, 60% between the ages of 16 and 24, 26% between the ages 25 and 44, and 80% between the ages 16 and 34. Gen Zers (ages 10-25) will be the largest generation, with over 74 million people. This generation is consuming TikTok at the fastest rate and even believes that social media can be a lucrative career path, given how quickly a video can go viral and spring a user to stardom. It seems benign, but if you take the time to dig deeper, read the privacy agreement, and do your own research, TikTok is not as innocent as we would like to think.
Aside from injecting Americans with addictive and possibly dangerous content while equipping their own population with business and life skills through limited screen time, the Chinese government’s focus with TikTok is on data. The Chinese have always played the long game when it comes to strategic moves on the world stage. They made significant investments in the manufacturing industry in the early 1990s and advanced their defense industry through espionage. Data collection has become a part of that defense/intelligence strategy for China, and it did not happen overnight with TikTok. China has been collecting data for the past two decades and continues to find creative ways to appeal to the average person, not just through phishing emails or scam phone calls. Queue social media, with its large online user base, prompting those users to voluntarily give permission for the companies to access their personal information, including email, contacts, text messages, camera and microphone.
Our war with China is going to be a long one. We will need to be strategic, unified, and willing to take risks. Such risks include the less popular approach of shutting down or banning certain social media platforms that are associated with China. TikTok is one of the largest social media platforms behind Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, with over a billion active monthly users. We have seen celebrities and politicians promoting TikTok as part of their social media strategy, which pushes their followers to join the platform. Our society consumes news through 30-second reels on social media. Whatever is conveyed in that time is taken as gospel without further consideration for facts or the origin of the information. China continues to push its narrative/propaganda to Americans through platforms such as TikTok, all while collecting data.
It’s promising to see the recent bipartisan support from Congress in the 2022 year-end omnibus package banning the application from use on government-owned devices. At the state level, governors have taken the lead as well. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin joined at least 16 other governors across the country to ban TikTok on state-owned devices.
But what about the rest of the public? For example, the critical infrastructure industries where employees may not have government-issued devices yet still communicate sensitive information on other apps which can be accessed via TikTok. Take something as simple as logging into your bank account using an app on your phone. China can track your keystrokes gaining access to your bank account, or if you’re sending a company email on your device that discusses detailed plans for building a new pipeline. If it is not appropriate — for numerous reasons — for use on government-owned devices, then why is it appropriate for our preteen and teenage children to use it? The answer is simple: It’s not.
The Biden administration and Congress should ban TikTok and add ByteDance, its parent company, to the Entity List — which would prohibit U.S. investors and financial institutions from backing the platform and restrict their infiltration into the United States. China is the biggest threat to our national security, and we as a country need to start taking this more seriously.