Cyber experts debate possible TikTok ban, national security vs. free speech

April 30, 2024
As the U.S. lawmakers and President Biden have approved legislation that makes a ban on TikTok in the U.S. more likely, cybersecurity experts have differing opinions on whether a ban would be effective and if free speech rights would suffer.

As the U.S. lawmakers and President Biden have approved legislation that makes a ban on TikTok in the U.S. more likely, cybersecurity experts have differing opinions on whether a ban would be effective and if free speech rights would suffer.

The bill passed recently require the app’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, to sell its stake in TikTok or face a U.S. ban. A ban could also face legal challenges due to potential violation of First Amendment rights for the app’s 170 million users in the U.S. 

Foreign Intelligence officials have flagged TikTok as being a potential national security threat through the capture and abuse of user data, although no specific evidence of that has been shared publicly.

Justin Miller, Associate Professor of Cyber Studies at the University of Tulsa who completed a 25-year career in the U.S. Secret Service, is not in the camp of security experts pushing for a ban, noting that China could potentially spy on U.S. citizens with almost any application on their phones.

But it’s noteworthy, he adds, that TikTok's role in shaping digital governance has emerged as a bipartisan concern, which challenges conventional notions of technological regulation.

“As the United States grapples with its own version of China's 'Great Firewall,' recent legislative efforts to either force TikTok's sale or enforce a complete ban within U.S. borders represent a critical turning point in global digital governance,” Miller says.

“This legislative push underscores the nation's commitment to balancing national security interests with constitutional principles such as freedom of speech. However, the decision teeters between a potential total ban and exploring capitalist investment avenues, illustrating the delicate balancing act at play.”

Questions will arise regarding the potential sale of TikTok's algorithm and its implications for the platform's functionality and user experience, he says, adding the geopolitical ramifications of TikTok's sale to U.S.-backed corporations extend beyond regulatory control within American borders, impacting international relations and technological innovation.

“As stakeholders navigate these complexities, it becomes increasingly clear that the implications of this saga transcend individual platforms, shaping the future of digital governance on a global scale,” Miller says.

TikTok has threatened to sue and is confident the app will prevail in court. “Rest assured, we aren’t going anywhere,” TikTok CEO Shou Chew said in a video response posted to X recently. “The facts and the Constitution are on our side, and we expect to prevail again.”

Brian Gant, Assistant Professor of Cybersecurity at Maryville University, is a proponent of free speech but he agrees a ban and legislation toward the ownership of TikTok “is very important to national security.

“We know for sure that the Chinese are collecting U.S. data and the overarching threat of that, coupled with possible ways to promote propaganda, are concerning,” Gant says.

Gant believes the technology exists to put meaningful regulations in place for social media, “but the enforcement of this technology, as opposed to marketing, traffic and numbers, often pales in comparison.”

A ban isn’t the only solution or the best solution, but it’s the quick solution to preventing national security ramifications from TikTok, says Craig Albert, a political science professor and Graduate Director of the Master of Arts in Intelligence and Security Studies program at Augusta University.

A sale might be more politically palatable than an outright ban if ByteDance could integrate itself within U.S. infrastructure rather than China’s.

Albert predicts this move by lawmakers that concerns free speech and expression, like other similar cases, will end up at the U.S. Supreme Court as a constitutional issue.

“I'm for a forced sale,” Albert says. “It smacks of authoritarianism in some respects. But when you weigh the consequences or the repercussions of a forced sale or regulations of some matter against the possible consequences of a national security threat from TikTok via the Chinese Communist Party, there's no question and doubt over which way the pendulum should swing in this case,” he says.

“If the average person in America could understand that, I think the repercussions from whatever actions the government takes for selling or banning or restricting in some aspect would be reduced greatly.”

Predictably the American Civil Liberties Union has come out against the 21st Century Peace Through Strength Act due to the potential TikTok ban, and due to other “broad new powers” for the President to ban other social media platforms based on their country of origin.

The ACLU recently sent a letter to the U.S. House discussing the constitutional concerns. The organization cited a case in Montana where a federal judge ruled against the state’s ban on TikTok, saying that was a First Amendment violation.

The ACLU argues because this legislation is a “prior restraint” that would prevent speech before it happens,” it’s subject to a heightened level of constitutional scrutiny. To pass muster, a court must determine that the ban is necessary to prevent extremely serious, immediate harm to national security.

“However, there is no public evidence of an imminent national security threat rising to this level. Even if such an imminent threat did exist, an outright ban is far from the only way to mitigate it,” the ACLU said in a letter to the U.S. House. “In fact, for one of the fears expressed by members of Congress – the Chinese government accessing the data of U.S. residents – an outright ban is actually ineffective because the Chinese government could continue to access the data of U.S. residents in myriad other ways.

If Congress wants to protect Americans’ data, “it should pass comprehensive privacy legislation – as it has begun considering,” the letter says.

“This is still nothing more than an unconstitutional ban in disguise,” said Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at the ACLU.

“Banning a social media platform that hundreds of millions of Americans use to express themselves would have devastating consequences for all of our First Amendment rights and will almost certainly be struck down in court.”

A Brick Wall

National security stakeholders face an uphill battle creating an understanding with younger generations about cyber threats posted by apps such as TikTok because they are not cognizant of cyber threats or ignore them, experts say.

In his classes at the University of Tulsa, Miller says he tells students that despite their freedom of choice, the threat of cyber attacks boils down to “people, processes and technology” and “even the most robust program is only as strong as the knowledge of what you’re going to allow in.”

The University’s cybersecurity program has been growing over the last several years and the university has been building a staff to educate students. The department has experts in criminology, business and media who are focusing on training students on the appropriate use of computers and computers attached to a network.

“If you don't train your people to understand the technology,” Miller says, they're going to have a hard time trying to understand how it's appropriately used and how it can be used as a tool or an influence against you.”

Some free speech advocates believe a TikTok ban could produce a slippery slope of regulations against other social media apps.

Banning a social media platform that hundreds of millions of Americans use to express themselves would have devastating consequences for all of our First Amendment rights and will almost certainly be struck down in court.

But Albert notes the U.S. government already can enact laws against certain behaviors, such as cyberbullying that has been linked to teen suicides.

Statistics and literature, he says, demonstrate grievous mental health issues for teenagers who use social media more than two hours a day. But restrictions would be more palatable if social media firms responded to more aggressively enforced rules.

“And that's what they're doing with influence operations like Facebook and Twitter. They’re trying hard to notice fake accounts, bot accounts, bot networks and reduce the spam and the information warfare that comes from state-sponsored bots on these sites,” Albert says. “They do it themselves. They do a poor job at it, but they try to do it themselves so that the government doesn't come in and force them to.”

Many people knew that FaceApp had been created by Russia but they didn’t understand, says Albert, that Russia would own the right to their image if they agreed to use it, and they continued to use the app even after that became known. The FBI in 2019 called FaceApp a “potential counterintelligence threat.”

“It's the same thing with TikTok. They own all this stuff and can scrape your image or voice and make any type of deep fake. So if you’re a 15- or 16-year-old person, think of the potential consequences of that,” Albert says. “If you're a 25-year-old person thinking of running for Congress, think of the deep fakes that the Chinese Communist Party can make of you that would sway the public opinion of you or me.

“They could take my image and likeness and voice and as a professor can create a deep fake that is not of me and potentially get me in trouble with my administration or something. You can prove something is a deep fake after a few days of study and analysis, But by that time the damage is done -- especially in politics, right?”

“When it comes to using applications like that, nobody is digging into the app to see who's funding and supporting it. They're just going to the store and hitting download. Nobody really thinks about whether this tool be used to track them.

“I'm a 19-year-old kid at the University of Tulsa using TikTok and I've got a brand or something that I want to kick out there, they're not thinking about national security implications. They're not thinking about data theft or how that data can be used to spy on them or create a dossier that could affect them later in life.”

As for knowing whether the application is a spying app, “Well, that's kind of what apps do, right?” Miller adds. “They spy on your phone, they spy on your uses, they create an algorithm that then markets to you for similar things.”

“And I'm not saying I'm pro-Chinese or against Chinese. I'm just trying to find the defined balance of what is that app doing out there that's creating the problem. And if you look at geopolitical issues you could be influenced, or you could be served propaganda, but any app on your phone could also be doing that. So if you're going to do a ban, where does it end?”

John Dobberstein is managing editor of and oversees all content creation for the website. Dobberstein continues a 34-year decorated journalism career that has included stops at a variety of newspapers and B2B magazines.