Why the stress around Chinese apps in the US is overblown

Why the stress around Chinese apps in the US is overblown

Why the stress around Chinese apps in the US is overblown

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Lotus Ruan, who has done technical analysis of Chinese apps like WeChat and is currently a senior researcher at Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab, echoes this view: “With the rise of TikTok and the globalization of Chinese apps, (people) look at Chinese apps with a magnifying glass. As a result, the risks are often exaggerated.


The actual differences between these apps and the US apps are quite small, Ruan says. In 2021, a technical review of TikTok, conducted by a colleague of Ruan, reported that it “did not observe (TikTok or its Chinese version Douyin) collecting contact lists, saving and sending photos, audio, videos or geolocation coordinates without the user’s permission”. (WeChat, on the other hand, has been found to monitor chats even in unregistered accounts in China.)

“We tend to secure everything now,” Ruan says, “that’s important, but we have to be very careful when applying a national security framework to data.” Concerns about what these apps might have done should be based on actual technical research rather than speculation and innuendo, she says.

Even then, journalists and members of political circles should closely monitor how these apps handle their data, paying particular attention to whether any user data is sent back to China.

As Xu tells me, there is a legitimate national security concern about what happens to US user data once it is within Chinese borders. China has developed a legal framework for protecting personal data, but it focuses on holding private companies accountable, without restricting what kind of data the government gets from companies or what it does with that data.

There are things companies like ByteDance, which owns TikTok, can do to address concerns. For years, ByteDance has committed to storing and processing US data only in the US, but there are still reports that the company’s engineers in China are inappropriately accessing US user data. “There are a few things they said they were going to do, but they didn’t. I think that’s the problem,” Xu says. Enforcing this segregation of user data and using third-party audits to prove this is being done would be a first step.

The political narrative around TikTok as a national security threat may alienate some users – if TikTok isn’t good for government workers, shouldn’t I be concerned and steer clear of it too? But unless the US government puts in place a complete ban on TikTok, I think many more will continue to use it.

The reality is that, ultimately, very few US users actively consider an app’s country of origin. Many people will simply weigh the benefits against the risks: are goofy videos entertaining enough to justify the risks of exposing their data to corporations and potentially state actors?


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