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TikTok data collection, ties to China spur bans

The U.S. Senate, federal agencies and state governments have banned TikTok from government devices due to concerns about data collection and China's access to U.S. data.

Mounting concern over TikTok's data collection practices has caused states and even the U.S. Senate to ban the app from government-owned devices.

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed the "No TikTok on Government Devices Act," which prohibits TikTok on federal devices. States including Alabama, Utah, Texas, South Dakota, Maryland, and more have also banned the app on government devices.

In doing so, they've joined the State Department, Department of Defense, Transportation Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security, all of which previously banned the app from federal agency devices due to national security concerns raised by FBI director Chris Wray. TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, is a Chinese-owned firm, which has caused lawmakers and agency leaders to worry about the Chinese government's access to U.S. data.

TikTok has struggled to convince lawmakers that data collected on U.S. consumers is not being accessed by China. TikTok announced it began storing U.S. data on Oracle's cloud platform earlier this year to appease privacy and security concerns. But an investigation conducted by Buzzfeed News based on leaked audio from internal TikTok meetings revealed U.S. data continued to be accessed from China.

The issues around TikTok stem from what will be a significant challenge going forward for countries like the U.S. and Europe as they attempt to reconcile differing global perspectives around issues like online data privacy and surveillance, said Nate Foster, a professor of computer science at Cornell University.

"This will go on for a while as we figure out how different countries and their views of politics and law rubs up against the internet, which doesn't always respect borders," Foster said. "The technical structure doesn't always match the geopolitical structure."

TikTok data collection

Data collection is the backbone for some of the biggest American-based businesses. Companies like Meta and Google rely on consumer data for product information and targeted advertising.

"They're also often tracking our locations, our social network contacts and, in some cases, the tracking is combined with other data streams like our browsing habits on the web," Foster said.

The concern is if our data from TikTok is being sent to data centers either in China or accessible from China, then the same kind of surveillance and intelligence-gathering may be happening.
Nate FosterProfessor of computer science, Cornell University

TikTok's ties to China, however, is a cause for greater concern when collecting personal and behavioral data on U.S. consumers, he said. The Chinese government's population surveillance, for example, is to "another order of magnitude."

"Internet access is heavily surveilled, filtered and censored," he said. "The concern is if our data from TikTok is being sent to data centers either in China or accessible from China, then the same kind of surveillance and intelligence-gathering may be happening."

Another problem with TikTok's data collection for the U.S. is the influence the Chinese government can exert over engineers and developers based in China, said Lou Steinberg, founder and managing partner of cybersecurity research lab CTM Insights, in a statement.

"By Chinese law, they can do things like demand data," he said.

To prove that U.S. data is staying in the country and is not accessed by China-based employees or the Chinese government can be a challenge, Foster said. However, it can be checked to some degree if hosted on a U.S. data center.

"If it is being hosted on a U.S. company server, there's a fair amount of logging, auditing and monitoring that gives you some capability to see what's happening to the flow of data," he said.

Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.

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