Is TikTok a harmless app or a threat to U.S. security?

It's billed itself as "the last sunny corner on the internet," but is TikTok really a tool for China to obtain troves of data on Americans? Bill Whitaker reports.

The question about TikTok
The question about TikTok 13:32

The Trump administration was set to ban TikTok, the wildly popular Chinese-owned mobile phone application, until Friday when the short-form video service was granted a two-week reprieve by the U.S. government to find an American buyer. That means TikTok will keep running on 100 million American devices.

And that's been the administration's worry, claiming that TikTok, "Automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users… potentially allowing China to track the locations of federal employees… conduct corporate espionage" or even "blackmail." President-elect Biden has called the Chinese-owned app "a matter of genuine concern." TikTok says that's all "unfounded," that it's a platform for creativity and free expression. So we wanted to know if TikTok is merely a pawn in the great power rivalry between the U.S. and China, or a genuine threat.

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TikTok's app on a phone

This is TikTok. It bills itself as "the last sunny corner on the internet." 50 million Americans spend nearly an hour each day scrolling through a never-ending parade of short videos made by other users. They may be lip-synching popular songs or performing them themselves. TikTok is a stage for preening and dancing. 

But like Instagram, YouTube and Facebook, TikTok's real business is keeping you engaged as long as possible… in order to collect your data.

Klon Kitchen: They're not providing a platform for music videos out of the goodness of their heart, right? They're making money by providing really deep insights into their user base. 

Klon Kitchen spent 15 years working for the U.S. intelligence community, including the CIA, and now is director of technology policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

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  Klon Kitchen

Klon Kitchen: What makes TikTok particularly concerning is its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, the government of China. The Chinese have fused their government and their industry together so that they cooperate to achieve the ends of the state. 

Bill Whitaker: And TikTok is a factor in that? I mean, but when you look at it, it just seems--

Klon Kitchen: Dance videos.

Bill Whitaker: Fun and innocuous.

Klon Kitchen: Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning and you saw a news report that China had distributed 100 million sensors around the United States, and that any time an American walked past one of these sensor, this sensor automatically collected off of your phone your name, your home address, your personal network, who you're friends with, your online viewing habits and a whole host of other pieces of information. Well, that's precisely what TikTok is. It has 100 million U.S. users, it collects all of that information.

And more, like many U.S. social media companies, TikTok asks users for access to their cameras, microphones, photos, videos, and contacts. More obscure data, like "keystroke patterns," are collected from everyone using the app.

Bill Whitaker: Keystrokes? What does that tell them?

Kara Frederick: The patterns and the rhythms of the way that you strike the keyboard, it can basically say, "This device belongs to this user." And you can do a lot with that if you are a foreign government. It's very, very invasive.

Kara Frederick knows the power of big tech. She helped set up Facebook's counterterrorism program after spending six years at the Pentagon, the National Security Agency, and as a targeter for special operations in Afghanistan.

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  Kara Frederick

Kara Frederick: Gen Z lives on this. Gen Z is gonna grow up someday. Do we want all of that information sort of hanging out there for nation-state adversaries to scoop up to integrate with other datasets? 

Bill Whitaker: But is-- is it different from what other apps collect?

Kara Frederick: So a lot of applications do collect these, you know, fulsome, comprehensive, digital profiles; they collect your digital behavior. However, TikTok is owned by a Beijing-based company called ByteDance.

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  Zhang Yiming

ByteDance is a $140 billion Chinese company, founded by this man, 37-year-old Zhang Yiming. Known as an AI, or artificial intelligence, savant, Zhang created the cutting-edge, AI-driven algorithm that fuels all of ByteDance's platforms, like "Douyin," the Chinese version of TikTok, with 600 million daily users. Both apps use the same logo and similar algorithms, which analyze exactly how long users watch a video, experiment with new offering, fine-tuning until it seems to be reading users' minds. 

Josh Hawley: TikTok is the first foreign-based application, social media application that has taken off in the United States. Nobody else has been able to do that. Why? 

Because their artificial intelligence, their algorithm, is so good.

Could TikTok enable disinformation or spying?... 06:20

At 40, Republican Josh Hawley is the youngest member of the U.S. Senate, and a former attorney general of Missouri. A staunch supporter of President Trump, he's earned bipartisan support for exposing the excesses of big tech. Google, Facebook and Apple have all been in his sights. Now it's TikTok.

We were with him last March as he prepared to chair a subcommittee hearing that he called "Dangerous Partners: Big Tech and Beijing." But TikTok and Apple were "no shows."

Josh Hawley: Executives from TikTok, they will never come and take the oath and testify in public. That I think is unusual. And I think it begs the question: What is it they have to hide? 

Bill Whitaker: TikTok will tell you that it's a platform for free expression. And they sort of market themselves as the sunniest place on the internet.

Josh Hawley: Here's the problem with TikTok as it exists now. It is owned by a Chinese parent company that has direct ties to the Chinese Communist Party. And we also know that under Chinese law, TikTok, ByteDance, the parent, is required to share data with the Chinese Communist Party.

Bill Whitaker: Required?

Josh Hawley: Required to under Chinese law. That's not a matter of speculation. That's in the law. American users, parents, teenagers, they have no way of knowing about any of this.

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  Josh Hawley

China is also notorious for using its big tech companies to track and predict the behavior of its own citizens, as seen in a 60 Minutes report from last year. China's stated goal is to become the world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030.

Senator Hawley fears China is doing the same thing here. Just last February, the Department of Justice charged four Chinese military hackers with stealing records from the credit reporting agency Equifax, affecting 145 million Americans, almost half the country. China has been caught hacking the second largest American health insurer, the agency that stores information about all government employees, even records from the Marriott hotel chain. Hawley says TikTok is just the friendly face of Chinese data harvesting.

Bill Whitaker: So what would the Chinese Communist Party do with all this information? 

Josh Hawley: Build dossiers, build files on every American who they can get their hands on. We could ask the same question about the Equifax breach. Why would the Chinese government be interested in the financial history of hundreds of millions of Americans? What are they gonna do with that? Well, clearly they thought it was very, very useful. 

Hawley says TikTok shouldn't be allowed to operate in the U.S. unless it separates completely from it's Chinese parent, ByteDance. A deal to sell a piece of TikTok to Walmart and the U.S. software giant, Oracle, is in limbo, because China is blocking the export of TikTok's proprietary algorithm. Bloomberg news likened that to selling KFC without the colonel's secret 11 herbs and spices. 

Josh Hawley: I wanna see the actual terms of the deal. The platform, the app platform, has got to be rebuilt. Because right now, it's been built by Chinese engineers. They have control and access to how the platform works, to how the algorithm works. Otherwise, you're just changing the label.

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  Vanessa Pappas

Despite all the suspicion, TikTok's popularity is booming worldwide. It's been downloaded two-and-a-half-billion times in more than 150 countries. Here in the U.S., it's become a go-to platform for creators of all stripes. Including celebrities, influencers and more and more older users.

Vanessa Pappas: I think the one thing that connects all of these videos, outside of them all being less than a minute in length, is really this idea of authenticity. 

Vanessa Pappas is interim-CEO of TikTok. A former YouTube executive, she inherited the top job in August just in time to face all those thorny questions about China. She spoke to us from TikTok's new office in Los Angeles.

Bill Whitaker: What is your understanding of why the president wants to ban TikTok?

Vanessa Pappas: So, when the executive order was delivered, we very much came out and said that we disagree with the characterization, which was done without due process and was not based on facts. 

Bill Whitaker: Your parent company, ByteDance, is a Chinese company.

Vanessa Pappas: Yeah, so ByteDance is founded by our Chinese entrepreneur, Yiming Zhang. And at the same time, though, ByteDance is a privately held company. 

Bill Whitaker: Do you report directly to him?

Vanessa Pappas: Yes, I report to him.

Bill Whitaker: Is it fair to say that ByteDance engineers created the TikTok recommendation algorithm and that they help to update it and maintain it?

Vanessa Pappas: So, we have engineers around the world. TikTok actually has people in 48 countries around the world. Certainly, we have engineers in China as well.

Bill Whitaker: Tell me about, ByteDance. It's a massive social media company in China. But it's also billed as an artificial intelligence company.

Vanessa Pappas: Yes, they use AI to power a number of their products. But again, I don't know how much else I can share about that, since my day to day is really focused on, on TikTok.

Pappas says her focus is on TikTok's content, not the technology behind it. And like many big tech executives, she downplays the amount, and usefulness, of data the platform collects.  

Vanessa Pappas: If you were trying to find information on somebody, TikTok would not be the first place. It wouldn't be the 100th place and it wouldn't be the 1,000th place.

Bill Whitaker: Your critics, they point out that under China's 2017 cybersecurity law, Chinese-based companies are required to provide the Chinese government with access to their data.

Vanessa Pappas: TikTok does not operate in China. The U.S. data is stored here in the U.S. and with backup in Singapore, and we have strict data access controls. If a government were to request data we will put that in our transparency report and tell you. And certainly the Chinese government has not requested data, and if they did it would be an emphatic, "No."

Former CIA officer Klon Kitchen says in China, no big technology company is independent of the Chinese Communist Party or CCP.

Klon Kitchen: The national security and cybersecurity laws of China require them to operate and build their networks in such a fashion as to where the government has unfettered access to their data. And so no, the CCP doesn't ask them for information. They don't need to. They have access to the information. 

Bill Whitaker: There seems to be a great disconnect. I mean, the American people, at least the kids who are on TikTok, have no concern about what we're talking about here. They just think it's fun.

Klon Kitchen: No. That's right. And for them, it is. They wanna make a dance video with, with their friend. I don't begrudge them that. But you know, their ignorance of the threat does nothing to diminish it. 

Statement from TikTok:

"Our U.S.-led security team has put extensive measures in place to guard against access to American user data by any government. In September, we offered to make Oracle our trusted technology partner to further protect and verify the security of U.S. user data—a proposal that the president endorsed.  We look forward to implementing this solution to put this issue to rest, once and for all."

Produced by Graham Messick. Associate producer,  Jack Weingart. Broadcast associate, Emilio Almonte. Edited by Matthew Lev/