Security concerns are nothing new to TikTok—the Chinese viral sensation that has grown fast enough to compete with the likes of WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram for downloads. Few if any apps better reflect our time in coronavirus lockdowns than this bitesize video sharing platform, but with great power comes great responsibility, and, so the arguments run, TikTok has totally failed the test.
While TikTok’s headline security warnings have been mainly in the U.S., with cybersecurity alerts and reports of military bans, the platform has actually seen more ruthless treatment at the hands of governments elsewhere—particularly India. Some fourteen months ago, I reported on the country banning TikTok over concerns for child welfare, following modest U.S. fines for data misuse.
That restriction turned out to be temporary, but it’s back. India has just announced bans on almost sixty Chinese apps, including leading titles from Tencent, Weibo and Baidu, implying that tech platforms must now remove them from app stores serving the country’s vast user base. For TikTok, these new restrictions hitting its largest market will affect millions of users—the app can no longer be downloaded, but existing users can continue to use their app for the time being.
The government says that the apps “pose a threat to sovereignty and security of our country—[following] several reports about mobile apps on Android and iOS platforms stealing and then surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India.”
In response to this news, TikTok told me that “building empowered local management teams in the countries where ByteDance operates, including India, has been critical to our global success. While the government of India has issued an interim order to block 59 apps, the ByteDance team of around 2,000 in India is committed to working with the government to demonstrate our dedication to user security and our commitment to the country overall. We are proud to provide hundreds of millions of users in India—and around the world—creative platforms for their stories, performances, education, and, often, a way to make their livelihood.”
There was a storm of publicity last week, when TikTok was found by Apple to be secretly accessing users’ clipboards. TikTok claims that this was an inadvertent technical bug caused by an anti-spam filter, but the backlash was fast and furious. Multiple Indian politicians jumped on the story, putting pressure on the government and the country’s cyber regulator to act.
There is a much broader political context to this, of course, with rising military tensions between India and China spilling over into the technical domain. We have seen an app recently hit Android’s Play Store, since removed, that promised to root out Chinese apps on users’ phones, and Xiaomi, the Chinese phone maker that holds a leading position in India has been playing up its local heritage.
And so it’s little surprise that the Indian government has acted—the nightmare for TikTok, though, is not only that India is the platform’s biggest market, but there is a risk that the backlash against its apparent security lapses might now extend much further, as political tensions intensify. TikTok’s most recent issue, that it was accessing user clipboards, first aired back in April. The platform assured that it had been fixed. Apparently not the case. That has undermined confidence at a time when other serious security warnings are being raised.
The U.S. government, in particular, continues to express concerns about the use of the app by so many young people within the country. TikTok’s recent success in America has been a huge advance for parent Bytedance, it will not want to see that derailed. And with the platform reportedly being used to undermine President Trump’s public reach in the country, one could see the U.S. now using India’s action as a reasonable trigger for action of its own.
There are 58 other Chinese apps impacted by this news—TikTok, though, will steal the headlines given its unstoppable growth outside China. One can expect to see questions raised in the U.S. later today as to whether similar action might be warranted there, given the multiple concerns and warnings from recent months.
Here’s the list of the 59 Chinese apps now banned in India: