The social networking service TikTok, which now counts more than a billion users worldwide, has captured the imaginations of people of all ages across the digital globe. An estimated 135 million Americans use it to post short videos showcasing content related to music, comedy, cooking, social commentary and everything in between.
But unlike the other major social networking services, TikTok is not bound by any American laws or even expectations around privacy, security, or safety. That’s because TikTok is owned by the Chinese tech giant ByteDance, which puts it out of reach of American regulators. This means U.S. authorities can’t protect your personal information, and can’t crack down on data manipulation or misuse.
So when prominent U.S.-based companies like Jamie Dimon’s JP Morgan Chase invest in partnerships with TikTok, helping it to build technology tools and giving it international credibility, they exacerbate the risk to American consumers.
TikTok poses risks both to users’ personal privacy, and to U.S. national security. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and members of Congress from both parties have noted that the app could be used by Chinese authorities to track Americans’ activities and interests. The information collected could be used as part of a political effort by the Chinese government to intervene in American internal affairs. Chinese state actors, for instance, could use TikTok user data to manipulate the content recommendation algorithm in order to influence American opinions about geopolitical issues.
That’s why the U.S. military has banned use of TikTok since 2020, and why Congress banned its use on all government devices. But despite the risks, despite the warnings, and despite Congressional action, American corporations like JP Morgan Chase continue their entanglements with TikTok.
JP Morgan is America’s largest financial services company and the world’s largest outside China. This $400 billion behemoth is involved in every aspect of financial services, including banking and lending, securities, and technology and infrastructure. And its aggressive technology partnership with ByteDance is helping to build a global financial system that’s shielded from U.S. regulators and may be subject to political influence from the Chinese government.
On its own website, JP Morgan brags about its work to build a real-time payments system for ByteDance, which is connected to payment clearing systems around the world and integrated into TikTok and the company’s other applications. When TikTok’s content creators participate in this system, their payments are recorded and tracked through the international banking system. This can be convenient for users, who receive payments more quickly and reliably, but it also means that Americans’ financial data is more easily tracked by TikTok’s owners themselves.
Congress is taking notice. In January, observing that Dimon is in partnership with a company that is under the influence of the Chinese Communist Party, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) blasted JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon in an open letter. “Data, including private information belonging to Americans and other foreigners, available to ByteDance is also accessible to Beijing,” he said.
And the risk to Americans is not just theoretical.
Rubio noted that ByteDance has already reportedly used private TikTok user data to track American journalists, after employees improperly gained access to their IP addresses and other personal data.
More ominously, research by the nonprofit media lab Accelerate Change found that videos using election-related words were viewed far less than otherwise similar videos, suggesting that the TikTok algorithm may be suppressing some types of political content. And in an investigation by NewsGuard, which operates an independent trustworthiness ratings service, almost 20 percent of the videos presented as search results on newsworthy topics such as “climate change” or “January 6 FBI” contained misinformation.
TikTok has already been used to rehabilitate the image of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and by TikTok’s own admission was used last summer by a Russian disinformation network to spread anti-Ukraine propaganda to users in the European Union.
Former National Security Agency general counsel Glenn Gerstell agrees with Rubio that JP Morgan’s partnership with ByteDance is potentially dangerous to American interests. He notes that given the political situation in China, it could give Chinese authorities access to data they could use for surveillance of Americans (something that, according to Rubio, has already happened), and has created a significant global financial platform outside the scope of American regulatory scrutiny. As he puts it, “I don’t think Americans really appreciate the extent of it and the potential risks.”
Several executives have moved from JP Morgan to ByteDance, in exchange for high salaries meant to attract the talent necessary to build best-in-class payment infrastructure. More significantly, working with the highly respected JP Morgan gives ByteDance a cachet that helps it counter some of the criticisms by U.S. officials. “J.P. Morgan is such a well-established, well-networked, very influential stakeholder in the U.S., and cooperating with a major player in the U.S. makes the company look more trustworthy,” says Xiomeng Liu, a director at Eurasia Group who is a geopolitical financial risk advisor. If JP Morgan trusts ByteDance, the logic goes, how can it be dangerous?
And this comes at a time when American policymakers are evaluating the risks of turning over extensive personal and financial information about Americans to a large, well-resourced company that’s not subject to most U.S. regulation and that is under the control of the Chinese government. In lending the company his own reputation, Jamie Dimon perpetuates a situation of grave risk. And by putting profit ahead of American national security, he’s playing a very dangerous game.
Ziven Havens is the policy director at The Bull Moose Project