Concerns about TikTok: Fun app – or security risk?

As of: 03/23/2023 6:38 p.m

More and more states are banning government employees from using the TikTok app on company cell phones. So far, the federal government does not see a sufficient danger from the program from China. The security authorities see things differently.

By Manuel Bewarder, Svea Eckert and Florian Flade, WDR/NDR

One thing you don’t have to discuss with TikTok: success with users. There is hardly an app that is so popular with teenagers and young adults. Short videos, often with music. Quickly recorded with the cell phone and shared on the web. The younger the people, the greater the popularity of TikTok, according to a survey.

TikTok seems to be the future. But there are serious doubts about the security of the app: The number of states and political institutions that ban TikTok on company cell phones is increasing significantly. The EU Commission decided so. Countries like the United States and Great Britain are also banning TikTok from state employees’ mobile phones.

“A complete ban is not proportionate”, Iris Sayram, ARD Berlin, on the government’s position on a possible TikTok ban

Tagesschau 12:00 p.m., 23.3.2023

Security authorities express concerns

So far, however, the federal government has not decided to take such a step with a clear signal effect – even if, according to information from WDR and NDR there are considerable concerns in the security authorities with regard to TikTok.

The federal government recently exchanged views with the company on security issues, as a company spokeswoman confirmed. Among other things, the technical design of the app was checked. The result: After the examination, the government looks for information from WDR and NDR currently no danger to public safety – i.e. no serious danger. But what the government sees: data protection problems. A decision on an express ban on company cell phones is therefore not pending at the moment.

Faeser urges vigilance

Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser emphasized possible risks during a visit to the USA: she called on users of the app to be particularly vigilant. Behind TikTok is a group “that is state-owned and where the data can of course also flow”. However, she considers an explicitly stipulated ban on the app to be “not proportionate”.

The minister does not currently see any acute need for action: Because TikTok is not explicitly allowed on official mobile phones in the federal administration. Or to put it another way: The federal government does not currently have to commit itself to the sensitive issue. It is a potential hazard.

A hasty, explicit ban on TikTok on company cell phones would actually have hardly any consequences in everyday life. But it would be a clear political signal in the geopolitical struggle with the powerful autocracy: A fun video app would be branded as a danger or a propaganda tool by Beijing.

TikTok broadcasts a lot of information

Hannes Federrath from the University of Hamburg explains what exactly happens when using the app: “Every time I swipe to call up new content, there is new access to the Internet, to the TikTok servers.” A lot of information would be transmitted – how long a video was watched, where and what you are interested in. So the company learns quite a lot about its users.

Policy discussion on Chinese technology

The current ban discussion is reminiscent of the lengthy debates about Chinese technology, such as that of the Huawei group, in communication networks. Several Western partners, above all the USA, had called early on to dispense with components from China, for example when expanding the 5G network. However, the federal government initially saw no concrete risk – and avoided a determination until the end.

Only recently has it been concluded that use of this vital infrastructure poses a risk to public safety – as reliance on autocracy would become too great. Now Chinese components are also supposed to disappear from German networks, and a corresponding ban by the Federal Ministry of the Interior is supposed to take place in the coming months.

Chinese companies committed to cooperation

In German security authorities, it is hoped that TikTok will also be treated more strictly in the future. According to security circles, the company is clearly a Chinese company – and thus an instrument with which data can be collected on a large scale worldwide and which could be used in an international crisis.

Accordingly, control of TikTok and the parent company Bytedance is in Chinese hands. The laws there, in turn, would oblige Chinese companies to cooperate with the autocracy and its secret services. The Vice President of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Sinan Selen, also drew attention to security risks on the sidelines of a security conference in Berlin at the request of the dpa news agency.

Parent company was already using data

A few months ago, the Chinese parent company had to admit that it had accessed user data from US journalists who had reported critically about the company – apparently to find out whether and which employees had leaked information. Concerned journalist Emily Baker-White says: “They used data from my TikTok app to find out where I am and if I meet with TikTok employees.”

Warnings from several countries

In addition to the USA, other countries have repeatedly pointed out security risks – these include in particular the states of the western intelligence alliance Five Eyes, consisting of the USA, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. It is said that the Chinese state can access user data. In addition, videos with topics that are a thorn in the side of the Chinese state would be suppressed on the app.

TikTok, on the other hand, points out when asked that they do not consider themselves a Chinese company, after all the company is based on the Cayman Islands.

Data protection officer is still checking

The Federal Data Protection Commissioner Ulrich Kelber has not yet had a clear position on the app from China. As early as 2021, he had stated in a letter that apps like TikTok were being scrutinized. However, the technical examination has not yet been completed. Even then it was clear that there would be deficits in data protection law. But such concerns apply to many social networks, although most of them do not have such close ties to an autocracy.

In Germany there is no general guideline for the use of TikTok on service devices of the federal administration. This means that federal authorities basically decide on their own responsibility which apps they allow on service devices in their area of ​​responsibility. The ministries can have apps checked via a portal at the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) – which house did this on TikTok and what the result was, the BSI did not want to say on request.

daily news at TikTok

The tagesschau also operates an account on TikTok and offers current news and background information to a very young community. The editorial team also repeatedly deals with criticism of TikTok and uses its content to prevent the spread of disinformation on the platform.

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