TikTok Expands Legal Compliance Because of Regulatory Scrutiny

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The U.S. government has raised concerns that TikTok poses a threat to U.S. national security. In response, TikTok hired a senior executive from Panasonic to oversee compliance functions. Catherine Razzano was formerly the Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer of Panasonic’s in-flight entertainment and communications businesses. Seeking her experience, TikTok named her head of legal compliance.

Ms. Razzano, along with other U.S.-based legal hires, will support TikTok’s compliance efforts as the company continues to grow. Ms. Razzano enters the role at a time when U.S. lawmakers are crafting regulations specifically targeted at foreign apps.

The U.S. Commerce Department, led by Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, proposed a rule to expand federal oversight of apps that could be used by “foreign adversaries to steal or otherwise obtain data.” In fact, the language is specifically meant to capture social media platforms such as TikTok.

“That rule is going to be significant, and will be a tool in the way that we deal with the threat,” Gina Raimondo commented.

The proposed rule would require foreign apps like TikTok to submit to independent auditing, source-code examination, and monitoring of user data logs. Foreign apps that refuse to comply could ultimately be banned in the United States for posing unacceptable security risks.

TikTok and Its Relationship with the Chinese Government

TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd. The Chinese government has a stake in ByteDance Technology, the company’s Chinese entity.

The Chinese government has tried to appease concerns from Western officials. It has distanced the video sharing app from its parent entity. Beijing officials noted that TikTok stores all its data in the U.S. with backup servers in Singapore.

Political Scrutiny of National Security Concerns

TikTok has come under significant political scrutiny. Several politicians have raised concerns about national security threats. Government officials have asserted that the popular Chinese-owned short-video app could facilitate spying by the Chinese government.

TikTok Data
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Some politicians have gone further, pointing criticism at the current administration for perceived inaction. “TikTok remains a serious threat to U.S. national security and Americans’—especially children’s—personal privacy,” U.S. Senator Marco Rubio remarked. “The Biden administration undid critical measures that President Trump took against the app, and the timid steps it has taken on data security are not nearly enough.”

Senator Ted Cruz has raised questions about the wording of TikTok’s privacy policy. The policy states that the app “may share all of the information we collect with a parent, subsidiary, or other affiliate of our corporate group.” However, it is unclear from the policy whether TikTok’s “corporate group” would include ByteDance Technology, ByteDance’s Chinese entity.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo pushed back on the criticism that the administration has taken inadequate steps to curb the data privacy threat from TikTok. “We take incredibly seriously the national-security risks presented by these connected software applications,” Ms. Raimondo said. “These are complex issues we take very seriously.”

The Debate Over the Threat Posed to U.S. National Security

Some see the threat to U.S. national security as exaggerated. Meanwhile, others have raised alarm bells that the government is not doing enough to make U.S. citizens aware of the severity of the problem.

Citizen Lab, an academic research lab focused on cybersecurity issues, concluded that the threat of data collection was no more intrusive than Facebook. After a technical analysis of the app’s algorithms, the researchers found no evidence of “overtly malicious behavior.”

At the other end of the spectrum, some security experts see the need for swift government action to address an underestimated security threat. Patrick Jackson, chief technology officer for the security firm Disconnect Inc., is one voice on this side of the debate.

“Regular Americans don’t recognize the harm the U.S. government is alleging. They may see it similar to Instagram or Snapchat,” Mr. Jackson stated. “The onus is on the government to connect the dots.”

TikTok Raises Mental Health and Psychological Harm Concerns for Young Users

Ms. Razzano’s role will include addressing concerns that the app could negatively affect the mental health of young users.

In fact, a number of teenage users have developed eating disorders and anxiety issues as a result of extended app usage. Mental-health professionals across the country have seen a spike in patients with emotional and psychological disorders that stem from TikTok activity.

Therapists report that a growing number of teens are struggling with self-esteem issues. Many young users have grown dependent on the app for social validation. TikTok acknowledges it is aware of these issues and is working toward solutions.

“We think carefully about the well-being of teens as we design our safety and privacy settings and restrict features on TikTok by age,” a TikTok spokeswoman said in a statement. “We’ve also worked with youth safety experts to develop resources aimed at supporting digital safety and literacy conversations among parents and teens.”

Because of the video app’s popularity among underage users, regulators will likely step in. Ms. Razzano’s department may need to devote more resources to compliance functions related to TikTok’s mental health effects.