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Banning TikTok Would Defeat the Purpose of National Security

If your goal is protecting liberty, violating liberty isn’t a great way to achieve it.

Image Credit: Pixabay

For millions of people in the US and around the world, TikTok has become the latest craze. Creating your own videos and sharing them with others has never been easier. Content creators who were completely unknown just months ago have now become superstars, and they and their fans are loving every minute of it.

But not everyone is happy.

In a June 24 letter to the CEOs of Google and Apple, FCC commissioner Brendan Carr expressed serious concerns regarding the platform and urged the companies to remove the app from their stores.

“TikTok is not what it appears to be on the surface,” he wrote. “It is not just an app for sharing funny videos or memes. That’s the sheep’s clothing. At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data.”

That’s some strong language, but Carr believes he has evidence to back it up. He cites an “alarming new report” which claims that sensitive data collected by TikTok is being accessed by TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, which is based in Beijing.

“Everything is seen in China,” a TikTok official said in a leaked recording.

“It is clear that TikTok poses an unacceptable national security risk due to its extensive data harvesting being combined with Beijing’s apparently unchecked access to that sensitive data,” Carr continued.

He concluded by requesting a response letter from both companies explaining how they can possibly justify keeping TikTok in their stores when, in his view, the platform has clearly violated Google and Apple’s own app store policies regarding data privacy.

Pot, Meet Kettle

In one part of the letter, Carr makes a noteworthy statement regarding the likely purpose of the data collection.

“TikTok collects everything from search and browsing histories to keystroke patterns and biometric identifiers, including faceprints…The list of personal and sensitive data it collects goes on from there. This should come as no surprise, however. Within its own borders, [China] has developed some of the most invasive and omnipresent surveillance capabilities in the world to maintain authoritarian control.”

Carr’s concerns about China’s surveillance capabilities are laudable, but the idea that the US government actually cares about data privacy is a bit rich. Sure, the US probably isn’t as bad as China on this, but this still feels a bit like the pot calling the kettle black. Remember Snowden? Do you really think the US government just stopped illegally collecting data after he exposed their surveillance practices in 2013?

Yeah, me neither.

My Phone, My Choice

Naturally, Carr’s letter has reignited the debate over whether the US government should ban TikTok. President Donald Trump tried to ban the platform with a pair of executive orders in 2020, but a group of TikTok content creators secured an injunction later that year preventing the ban from taking effect.

Trump’s ban was then revoked by the Biden administration in June, 2021, and the government has been conducting a national security review of the app ever since.

To be sure, the idea that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could be accessing data without permission is deeply troubling, and it’s something we should take seriously. But the question is not whether the CCP is acting morally (they’re not) or whether they represent a threat (they do). The question is, do Americans have the right to use the app despite the privacy risks?

The answer here should be a resounding yes.

A ban of TikTok would be a blatant violation of civil liberties. The government has no business telling people what apps they can have on their phones. If individuals want to take the risk of exposing their data to the CCP, that should be their choice.

The problem with the “national security” argument is that it’s incredibly hard to quantify the threats in any objective way. What exactly is at stake here? What will be jeopardized if the CCP gains access to this data? We simply don’t know. What we do know is that the “national security” excuse gets thrown around an awful lot, and it’s a convenient way to pacify the masses who might otherwise protest the ever-increasing violation of their liberties.

Having said that, there’s a more fundamental reason why appealing to national security to justify banning TikTok makes no sense.

National security is not an end in itself. It’s a means to personal security. The whole point of “defending the nation” is to defend the individuals within the nation. More specifically, it’s about defending the rights and liberties of the individuals within the nation from foreigners who would otherwise violate those rights.

The problem is, in their quest to defend so-called national security, our paternalistic overlords seem perfectly willing to compromise the personal liberty of millions of Americans, that is, their right to access platforms of their choosing without coercive interference.

Do you see the problem?

The whole point of national security is defending people from violations of their liberty. It makes zero sense, then, to violate liberty in the name of protecting it. Yet that’s exactly what a ban on TikTok purports to do.

In short, by banning TikTok, our rulers would embody the very authoritarianism they claim to be defending us from.

And that’s more than a little ironic.

This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.

  • Patrick Carroll is the Managing Editor at the Foundation for Economic Education.