You’ve probably heard about big-name Chinese phone manufacturers like Huawei, OnePlus, and Xiaomi. In the name of national security, the U.S. has restricted Huawei from its market. It doesn’t come as a surprise that a Chinese app has now come under fire as well.
TikTok under Heavy Fire
TikTok, the Beijing based app, best known for lip-syncing videos, has more than 2 billion downloads globally. It’s right to question why a viral dance video/lip-sync comedy app is suddenly under so much scrutiny.
The reason is similar to the Huawei ban, where certain U.S. officials have described TikTok to be a threat to national security. Why, you may ask?
Well, the reason the US and some of its allies are so concerned about Chinese technology is the possibility that back doors could be built-in to Chinese-controlled software and hardware to allow mass spying against Western citizens and interests.
According to security expert Mike Thompson,
“I’m yet to see a documented, material threat. It’s no more than the usual bluster over a new app designed to help people connect. Yes, it comes with risk, but it’s no worse than any of the myriad other social networking communities. In this case, blame the players, rather than the game.”
Although Huawei is a private company, they’ve faced criticism in the past for getting too much support from China’s communist government, leading some officials to worry that their communication technology could be used for intercepting them or other shady doings.
Similarly, TikTok is also owned by a private Chinese company called ByteDance, and like Huawei, they’re not officially an arm of the government in Beijing. However, similar concerns about undue influence from Chinese authorities are present.
TikTok under the Influence
In 2018, China forced ByteDance to shut down a different app centered on memes and videos simply because it didn’t like the content. After shutting down the app, ByteDance issued a statement in which it attempted to appease the Chinese communist party and promised to hire party members, as well as increase the number of employees working as censors.
According to Ian Thornton-Trump,
“It’s not any worse or any better than what Facebook, Google, and thousands of apps are doing already.”
All this gives the impression that ByteDance probably felt the pressure from the Chinese government and could possibly abide by their requests in the future. The sheer uncertainty is what’s worrying many security experts and privacy enthusiasts.
At the same time, Chinese lack of data protection laws and the government’s broad powers to collect data from tech companies has raised genuine concerns that it would be far easier for the Chinese communist party to get its hands on any data it wants from ByteDance and any other domestic technology firms.
Of course, that is a lot of speculation. The real question is: is this what’s really going on with TikTok? Well, so far, there’s no evidence that the Chinese government has collected data from TikTok or its users.
Even if the Chinese government does get a hold of the data, it’s important to look at what kind of information they’d be getting. Classifying data is important before fingers are pointed towards an app without any investigation or evidence.
What Does TikTok Collect?
TikTok collects users’ IP addresses and location data. They’re not the only ones that do that as several other apps do the same thing. A huge issue with TikTok isn’t related to data collection or the use of the app as a means to spy on your online activities.
A guy on reddit reversed engineered #TikTok
Here’s what he found on the data it collects on you
It’s far worse than just stealing what’s on your clipboard: pic.twitter.com/oqaQyYDXT2
— Dan Okopnyi 🇺🇦 (@d1rtydan) June 28, 2020
The issue with such a powerful app that hosts over 2 billion users is the control of misinformation and sensitive topics that can easily spiral out of control. Western countries already fear that the Chinese government is using TikTok to control and spin misinformation by pressuring ByteDance to follow their agenda and that ultimately can lead to the collection of sensitive information happening on the US turf.
The Future of TikTok
Regardless of what TikTok does or does not have the potential to become, both the US Army and the Navy have banned the app, and the State Department is said to be looking at a nationwide prohibition. The US won’t be the first country to do this as India has already banned TikTok, citing similar national securing concerns.
What would happen if TikTok does get banned in the US? For starters, there’s probably going to be a lot of really upset Gen Z-ers. With social distancing SOPs in place, it’s highly unlikely that a protest will be taking place over an app. It’s possible that users will shift towards an alternative, a much safer app, such as Vine.
Delete Tiktok now! It’s dangerous and malware to access all of your information and personal data a hundred times more than Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or any other app#DeleteTikTok
— Rich Daddy Gangsta (@Wontaesun) August 9, 2020
Amazon has already told its employees to stop using TikTok as the app may potentially spy on their internal communications. Other companies and governments will likely follow suit. Regardless of whether the app is collecting data or not, one thing is clear: a lot of people are already deleting TikTok.
Note: If you want to use TikTok safely, certain protective measures should be taken such as connecting to a TikTok VPN.