The TikTok ban debate: implications for security

June 24, 2024
Never before has such a popular social media app been so front and center in international relations, with implications for cybersecurity, privacy, free speech, data protection, election influence and much more.

It is rare for federal legislation to receive such wide bipartisan support on such a controversial topic in the public sphere. However, it’s clear that large majorities in both parties see TikTok as a serious threat to U.S. national security.

As a former NSA employee, I always view this through the lens of “you don’t know what you don’t know.” That is, there are likely classified (secret / non-public) examples that the public is not seeing to justify these extreme government actions to protect Americans.

Furthermore, while the analysis provided (see your article: Cyber experts debate possible TikTok ban, national security vs. free speech | Security Info Watch) presents many great points and different sides of this debate, it fails to view this discussion as part of a wider debate that includes other threats to national security that led to bans. For example, the FCC has banned Kaspersky Labs software, and the U.S. bans new Huawei, ZTE equipment sales, citing national security risk.

Why TikTok?

The government decides to ban or legislate technologies when there are significant national security risks. This legislation is often implemented through executive orders or specific laws. The public reaction can vary, with some supporting the measures for safety and others concerned about censorship and market impact.

Generally, these decisions are accompanied by debates about privacy, security and freedom of information. But what is it about TikTok, in particular, that has led to such an impassioned, mainstream debate?

For one, prior tech companies and products that have been regulated do not have nearly the installed base and media attention that TikTok does, nor grabbed the hearts and minds of so many young people in America.

TikTok is now a significant player in the social media landscape. As of 2023, TikTok had more than 150 million users in the U.S. alone. On average, American adults spend more than an hour per day engaging on the platform. This popularity underscores TikTok’s influence, making its potential ban a significant issue for users, businesses and the broader tech industry. 

Actions by Other Countries

Nevertheless, TikTok is part of a wider range of products that can be banned by the recent legislation – when deemed to be in the nation’s best interest.

Remember also that several other large countries, including India, have banned TikTok nationwide. And let’s not forget that China bans U.S. social media apps to maintain strict control over information and prevent foreign influence. Apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are banned due to concerns about spreading unregulated information.

The Chinese government also fears these platforms could be used for political activism or dissent. So by banning these apps, China aims to protect its national security and social stability. Instead, China promotes its own platforms like WeChat and Weibo, which are easier to monitor and control. 

In the case of TikTok here in the U.S., the lawsuits filed by ByteDance will likely take many months, perhaps even years, to resolve. And meanwhile, negotiations continue regarding a potential sale.

What the Options Are

TikTok could still operate in the U.S. if it addresses national security concerns by selling its U.S. operations to a non-Chinese company. Another option could be implementing stricter data privacy measures and allowing regular audits by U.S. officials. These steps could help assure the U.S. government that user data is safe from foreign access, but the road is long. 

Whether an agreement can be reached to sell TikTok (or part of TikTok) to a U.S. company remains to be seen. If a TikTok ban does happen, it will also likely be after the November election. The dynamics of this issue could also change if the administration changes. Depending on the results, the conversation dynamics could quickly shift, with some legislators advocating for stricter tech regulations and others pushing for more digital freedom.

The issue between national security and digital freedom is complex because it involves balancing safety with individual rights. National security advocates argue that strict regulations and bans are necessary to protect sensitive data and prevent foreign influence. On the other hand, proponents of digital freedom believe that such measures can lead to censorship and stifle innovation.

This discussion is crucial as the world becomes more interconnected and technology-driven, with data privacy and cybersecurity becoming top priorities – and it becomes even more complex when viewed through a business lens.

How and when should innovation be slowed due to potential security threats? How should the U.S. balance the economic impact of these decisions with the best interests of the country from a security standpoint? 

Data Privacy Scrutiny

The U.S. tries to balance economic opportunities with national security by imposing regulations that protect data without stifling innovation. This often involves collaboration with tech companies to enhance security measures while still allowing them to thrive. 

But taking a big step back, the full reaction to these efforts from the younger generation could still become a major factor in what eventually happens to this TikTok ban. My best guess is that passing this legislation has enabled a stronger negotiation hand to force a sale to a U.S. company. By threatening a ban, the U.S. strengthens its position, encouraging TikTok to comply, sell to a non-Chinese company or shutter its U.S. operations entirely. 

The potential TikTok ban and public interest in the topic are shining a spotlight on broader security and IT concerns. This heightened awareness is leading to increased scrutiny of data privacy and cybersecurity practices across all tech companies.

As the world becomes more global and interconnected, businesses must prioritize robust security measures to protect user data and maintain trust. For business leaders, this means investing more in security infrastructure and staying informed about evolving regulations. Ultimately, the TikTok conversation is driving a stronger emphasis on cybersecurity, influencing how companies operate and protect their digital assets. 

Bottom line: Watch this space. Never before has such a popular social media app been so front and center in international relations, with implications for cybersecurity, privacy, free speech, data protection, election influence and much more.

About the Author

Daniel Lohrmann | Field CISO

Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author. Lohrmann currently serves as the Field CISO, Public Sector for Presidio. Dan has more than 30 years of experience in the computer industry, beginning his career with the National Security Agency. Lohrmann holds a Master's Degree in Computer Science (CS) from Johns Hopkins University and a Bachelor's Degree in CS from Valparaiso University. Dan also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for Digital Government.