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Science & Technology

Trump Administration Is Considering Ban On TikTok In The U.S.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The walls are closing in on TikTok, the favorite video-sharing app of teens and 20-somethings. First, Wells Fargo told employees to take it off their phones. Now Congress is threatening to ban federal employees from using it on government devices, and the Trump administration is considering ways to push TikTok out of the U.S. altogether. NPR's Bobby Allyn reports.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Christina Najjar (ph) in Los Angeles is one of 80 million Americans on TikTok. Her recent videos include a review of a pina colada in Beverly Hills and a glowing appreciation of America's top infectious disease doctor, Anthony Fauci. Holding a tiny microphone between her fingers, this is what she told her followers about TikTok being in Washington's crosshairs.

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CHRISTINA NAJJAR: I just got new passport photos because if America bans TikTok on top of everything else, I am going home to England to live with my parents.

ALLYN: She might want to start booking her flight because the White House is considering a number of ways to push TikTok out of the U.S. The most likely way is through an executive order from the president claiming TikTok is a national security threat. Stewart Baker, the former general counsel at the National Security Agency, says that's a reasonable concern. He says the White House is expected to cite the century-old Trading With The Enemy Act. That would mean...

STEWART BAKER: No American can give them advertising money. No American may pay them for the app. No American can enter into a transaction to put them into their app store.

ALLYN: In other words, you wouldn't be able to find TikTok in app stores anymore. And if you already have it, it would over time stop working. The push to squeeze TikTok out of business comes over fears that the app could be used as a Chinese spy tool. In their TikTok videos, most users shrug off that concern. Here's Jake Mullen (ph), who lives in New York.

JAKE MULLEN: What are they going to do? What's the worst-case scenario? They're going to watch my videos and, like, find out that I'm hilarious and handsome?

ALLYN: He has a point, says Jim Lewis, a former State Department official who now studies technology at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

JIM LEWIS: I actually was interested in this, so I watched four hours of TikTok videos. That works out to be over 700 TikTok videos. And I'll be damned if I can see the national security threat.

ALLYN: All the tech policy experts I talked to agreed. If the Chinese government wants to conduct espionage, there's almost nothing useful it could glean from funny monologues and dance videos by teenagers.

ADAM SEGAL: The data that's gathered from a TikTok on your phone is pretty equivalent to what you give away to all your other apps.

ALLYN: Adam Segal leads the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. He says TikTok collects and stores messages you exchange on the app. It also saves your Internet search history, your location data and can access the contacts on your phone. None of this is a secret, but here's the rub.

SEGAL: When you sign off on the user agreement - and on TikTok, it says, we may share some data with our parent company.

ALLYN: That parent company is Beijing-based ByteDance. And while TikTok says it stores its data in the U.S. and has never handed over user information to China, it's the potential of that happening that puts Washington on the offensive.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.