TikTok, algorithm and national security at the heart of the China-US conflict

TikTok, algorithm and national security at the heart of the China-US conflict

The Chinese application TikTok, which is enjoying growing worldwide success, is at the heart of a diplomatic-technological saga between Washington and Beijing.

US President Donald Trump, who accuses him of spying on behalf of the Chinese government, is threatening to shut it down in the United States unless its activities in the country go under the American flag. China and the group oppose it. Overview of a conflict with twists and turns whose outcome is complicated by its proximity to the US presidential election of November 3.

TikTok, what is it?

Launched in September 2016 by the Chinese group ByteDance, TikTok is used to share short videos. We see users dancing, playing back to their favorite songs. Thanks to filters and speed-up or slow-down effects, users post small clips that are hugely successful, especially with young audiences.

It was in 2018 that the application became global. It now has 100 million monthly users in the United States and some 700 million worldwide, according to TikTok data released this summer.


Donald Trump claims that the TikTok application can be used for spy purposes on behalf of Beijing, since it collects data from American consumers and geolocates them.

Faced with this threat, in January, the US Department of Defense had asked its staff to uninstall TikTok from all their cell phones, the New York Times reported.

For the Trump administration, the danger stems in particular from a 2017 Chinese law that obliges Chinese businesses and citizens to comply with all matters of national security.

At the beginning of November 2019, Vanessa Pappas, the general manager of TikTok in the United States, had refuted these accusations, stressing that all the data of American users was stored in the United States but with a backup in Singapore. According to TikTok, none of its data is subject to Chinese law.

But these statements did not allay the fears of the Trump administration.

“TikTok automatically captures vast palettes of information from its users (…) such as location data and browsing and search histories,” reads the executive order issued by the US president on August 6.

“This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party to gain access to Americans' personal and proprietary information potentially allowing China to track the locations of federal employees and contractors, to build records of personal information that can be used for blackmail and corporate espionage ”, we can also read.

American flag or ban

Faced with this threat, Donald Trump has issued an ultimatum to TikTok: either it will bring its activities in the United States under American control by September 27, or new downloads will be prohibited while current users will see their application degraded with an inability for example to download updates.

If no agreement is reached, the application could also disappear from screens in the United States from November 12, according to the Treasury.

Famous algorithm

TikTok is conquering a global audience thanks to viral videos, driven by an algorithm.

It is the leaders themselves who, in an effort of transparency, had unveiled on September 9 to the specialized press, the technical underside of the platform.

TikTok's algorithm uses artificial intelligence to determine which content a user is most likely to engage with. This makes it possible to offer him videos that are similar or liked by people with similar user preferences.

However, TikTok tries to avoid redundancies that could annoy the user, such as seeing several videos with the same music.

China refuses to let this precious algorithm fall into the hands of the United States. On August 28, Beijing included the algorithms in the list of artificial intelligence technologies that cannot be exported.

An agreement far from being finalized

Since the presidential decree of last August, the TikTok saga has never ended.

On Saturday, the app confirmed a plan to create a new company involving Oracle as a technology partner in the United States and Walmart as a business partner.

Called TikTok Global, it plans to acquire a stake of 12.5% from Oracle and 7.5% from Walmart. The Americans would hold four of the five seats on the board.

On Monday, the White House host insisted that he would not give his approval if the new group remained under Chinese control while claiming that Oracle and Walmart would own the majority of the new group.

ByteDance, which includes US investors, called the information “false rumors.”

The Global Times, a Chinese state-run daily, has urged Americans to say “no, to the theft of TikTok”.

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