With an endless stream of short videos, TikTok is an innocent looking app that may not immediately remind you of a threat to the national security of the United States. Still, that's the formal reason the White House wants to ban the Chinese-origin app or get the Chinese owner to sell it. Why does Donald Trump target TikTok?
The US is examining its relationship with China, and now TikTok is under discussion. The issue surrounding the popular video app is inseparable from the relationship between the two countries, says analyst Paul Verhagen of The Hague Center for Strategic Studies (HCSS).
"The relationship between the US and China is at an all-time low," said Verhagen. "TikTok fits very well into an American discussion about the role of Chinese companies and the White House story about it: everything from China is scary. China is the enemy."
TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance. In China, the company manages several popular apps, including Douyin, as TikTok is called there. The app is the company's most popular export product, with hundreds of millions of users in the United States and Europe, among others.
In the US, Trump threatens to compromise the survival of TikTok. The app could be banned for national security reasons - TikTok could pass data from US citizens to the Chinese Communist Party.
Fate could be averted if an American company takes over the American branch of TikTok before September 15. Microsoft has expressed interest in helping the tech giant get its hands on a potential competitor to Instagram (part of Facebook) and Snapchat.
Donald Trump and Xi Jinping meet in June 2019 in Osaka, Japan. The corona crisis that broke out six months later has further hampered relations between the two countries. (Photo: Reuters)
US call for ban resembles Huawei conflict
How the White House deals with TikTok is partly similar to how the Chinese company Huawei is banned by the US. Huawei smartphones have been out of the U.S. market for years. With 5G networks being rolled out, the company's telecom equipment is also being banned.
The US points to the risk that Huawei equipment may be used by China for espionage. It is no secret that China is targeting the West: the General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) regularly warns against Chinese espionage in the Netherlands. This means that technology from countries like that carries risks.
"At Huawei, 5G is a very important technology," said Verhagen. "TikTok is a nice app, but what is the added value? In the end, it is a fairly harmless platform. It cannot be compared to 5G."
Still, data from TikTok users can fall into the hands of the Communist Party. Sanne Maasakkers of internet security company Fox-IT analyzed the app for NOS Stories . She concludes, among other things, that TikTok collects largely the same type of data as, for example, Instagram.
The app also connects to a TikTok server twice a minute. "That is not surprising behavior, because other apps also do that with their own servers," says Maasakkers in conversation with NU.nl. "But every thirty seconds is very often. And you don't know exactly what TikTok does with all your data and what consequences that could have."
"TikTok does not enjoy the same confidence as Facebook or Google"
Because the Chinese government can request information about users from ByteDance, it is theoretically possible that your behavior on TikTok will have consequences when you go to China, says Maasakkers. "For example for a holiday or because you are going to study there. It is speculation about what exactly can happen, but the risk does exist."
The difference with Facebook and Google - American companies that also collect a lot of data via their apps - is that ByteDance as a Chinese company in the West does not automatically enjoy the same confidence, says Verhagen of the HCSS.
That has to do with how China can use companies from the country. "In principle, China can use anything that Chinese companies can supply. For example, in Xinjiang Province (where the country oppresses the Uyghur minority, ed.) Or for other malicious purposes."
The US blacklisted Chinese security camera company Hikvision in October 2019 for contributing to human rights abuses in Xinjiang Province. (Photo: Reuters)
"But why then TikTok?" Verhagen wonders aloud. "TikTok is not the arch-enemy that is going to conquer the world. Why not (the chat app popular in China, ed.) WeChat? The choice to tackle TikTok exactly comes from nowhere."
Does personal feud play a role in Trump's decision?
There is no certainty about a possible other motivation behind the formal importance of US national security. But both Maasakkers and Verhagen do not rule out the possibility that a personal feud of Trump plays a role.
Separately and independently, the two refer to an election rally by the President of the United States in Oklahoma in June. Despite a sold-out room, a striking number of places were empty there. This was the result of a protest campaign partly organized through TikTok to buy tickets but not show up, The New York Times and CNN concluded .
"It may sound very childish," says Verhagen. "But you have to take into account that Trump's rally was a drama in that regard. Trump's image may also play a role."
"We are tackling TikTok. We may be banning TikTok," Donald Trump told American journalists at the White House on July 31. "We'll see how it goes." (Photo: Getty Images)
For Maasakkers, the protest action is an example of the role that social media can play in politics. "I don't want to make the direct link between TikTok and Trump," she said. "This is a small example. But imagine that TikTok can use its algorithms to influence what Americans see in election time. You don't want a Chinese company to be able to exert this influence."
According to the security expert, the discussion revolves around what Beijing could theoretically do with TikTok. "You don't know exactly what the Chinese government can do. They have the data, they can provide links. Be aware that information is being stored and that something can happen if you use those apps in a way that Beijing doesn't like. "