The current uproar over popular video app TikTok is framed as one of privacy: The app is leaky, it’s selling your data, and it’s owned by a Chinese company, so who knows where that information is going. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has gone so far as to suggest that the U.S. is “looking at” banning the app.
The Department of Defense and major private companies like Wells Fargo have already forbidden their employees from having the app on their work devices. The Democratic and Republican national committees have also warned against using it.
But is TikTok really that dangerous?
No more so than other social media apps or online services, experts told Digital Trends.
Why TikTok is being singled out
Richard Forno, director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s cybersecurity graduate program, contends that TikTok is no more or less invasive than your Facebook or Google apps.
“I don’t think TikTok is much different from any other social media apps or services or platforms,” Forno told Digital Trends. “I think it’s been singled out because of the China connection.”
The real and ongoing controversy with TikTok is that it is own by a company based in Beijing, and not by a Western company, said experts at ProPrivacy, a U.K.-based digital privacy advocacy group.
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company, and rumors have swirled in recent months that the Chinese government might be using the app to spy on users all over the world.
In an emailed statement to Digital Trends, a TikTok spokesperson distanced the company from its Chinese owners, saying “TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy here in the U.S.. We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users. We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”
TikTok stores its user data in the US with a backup server in Singapore. Its chief information security officer, Roland Cloutier, was hired in April 2020 after several decades in law enforcement and security.
Even if it is true that the app is spying, experts said, every social media app is spying on you to more or less the same degree.
“When you look at the app, it’s no better or worse than any other major social media platforms that have had major privacy snafus over the last decade,” said Heather Federman, vice president of privacy and policy at the data intelligence firm BigID. “The difference is it’s a Chinese-owned app. In terms of the perception, that’s not great. But in terms of reality, this is the same thing you get with any app.”
“If we think of the concerns like what happened with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, it’s similar to TikTok because they still have this sense of who you’re following, your location, your contacts, your sense of identity, what you like, and they can make clear inferences and target you from a political perspective,” said Federman, referring to the scandal in which the U.K. firm Cambridge Analytica was found to have harvested user data for political gains. “That could still be part of the concern, as it’s an extra-sensitive political year.”
Ultimately, the methods that both Western and Chinese companies use to collect data from users are both “legitimately troubling,” wrote Ray Walsh, a digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy.
TikTok poses a similar risk as Snapchat and Instagram, Forno said.
“The key thing is to just keep a cool head and separate the political noise from all the technical concerns,” he explained. A recent study in the Washington Post came to a similar conclusion: TikTok collects about the same amount of information from its users as Facebook.
An invasive industry standard
But, privacy experts said, online services still harvest a lot of user data. And there are valid reasons to be concerned about TikTok.
Forno said that users need to be mindful of the metadata collected by the app; the amount of time you spend on TikTok, your location, who you’re chatting with, and more are all also sent to the app.
This is extremely useful for tracking users, and given China’s views on protest and censorship, that could be a problem, he added.
While regulations do exist in China that require companies to provide access to consumer data, Walsh said it was the “close ties between China-based companies and the government that causes so much concern among human rights and privacy advocates.
In its recent biannual transparency report, TikTok said it had received hundreds of requests from governments across the globe for user data and post takedowns.
The company did not list how many requests came from China, where a sister app called Douyin operates instead of TikTok. TikTok previously referred Digital Trends to Douyin for comment about government requests for user information. Douyin has not responded to a Digital Trends request for comment.
Threats of regulation
Pompeo’s comments about TikTok also raise the question: Can the U.S. government actually ban an app?
“The White House could certainly say they don’t like it,” Forno said. “That would make a big statement, and it would turn people off of it.”
Kurt Opsahl, general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Digital Trends that while it was unclear what Pompeo meant by “ban,” it was possible that the Trump Administration could draw on the examples of the Huawei and ZTE equipment bans, two other Chinese companies that have faced U.S. sanctions.
“But TikTok is different, as it does not depend on government users, federal money, or tech exports the way that Huawei and ZTE do,” Opsahl wrote in an email. He also pointed out that any law trying to ban software from the U.S. would raise First Amendment issues, as “code is speech.”
“It seems unlikely that the government will try for a complete TikTok ban, like saying that no one in the U.S. could use the app,” he said. “There is no law that would authorize the federal government to ban ordinary Americans from using an app.”
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