Dancing with Danger? 3 Things Experts Think You Should Know About TikTok

Dancing with Danger? 3 Things Experts Think You Should Know About TikTok (TikTok influencers Bria Alana, Tanisha Coetzee and Tianna Singer pose during An Afternoon With TikTok's "Girls In The Valley" on May 18, 2020 in Sherman Oaks, California. (Photo: Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images))

TikTok has been in the news a lot lately, and fans of the short-form video sharing app are understandably getting whiplash while trying to keep up, while wondering what all the fuss is about. 

Here’s a 30,000-foot recap:

Data and security experts have been criticizing the Chinese-owned video sharing app for years, but the drama surrounding TikTok seemed to come to a head on Friday night, when President Donald Trump threatened to ban the app outright.

Many TikTok users responded to the news by posting emotional farewell messages and plenty of anti-Trump memes, according to one New York Times report.

On Monday, news broke that TikTok might be spared from a ban, if the company agreed to sell to Microsoft. The president gave the companies until September 15 to reach a deal.

So why all the drama?

TikTok presents a very complicated situation for the federal government (which is becoming more complicated as I type this),  but much of the concern boils down to the fact that TikTok is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance, and the U.S. and China are not exactly simpatico at the moment. 

Here are data and security experts’ three biggest problems with the app:

Problem #1: TikTok knows way more about you than you might realize.

In an interview with Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler, Patrick Jackson, CTO of privacy company Disconnect, said that TikTok uses technology to glean an “abnormal” amount of information from whatever device you’re viewing it on.

While we can’t know all of what the app is collecting, we do know the basics. TikTok records your birthday, your email address, phone number, private messages and a bunch of details about your device “like screen resolution and the Apple advertising identifier,” Fowler wrote. The app will also monitor your location, as well as the contacts stored on your phone and in other social profiles, if you give it special permission to do so.

“That all adds up to a profile of you useful not only to target ads, but also to understand who you are, who your friends and family are, what you like, what you find funny and what you say to your friends,” wrote Fowler.

Some experts argue that this amount of data collection isn’t significantly different from what Facebook or other social networks gather. And if that’s the case, you might be wondering, “Why should I care whether ByteDance has my data?” Well, I’ll tell you:

Problem #2: If asked, ByteDance could be required to turn over user data — including your private messages, contacts and location info — to the Chinese government.

Chinese law requires that all companies comply with government intelligence operations, which means if the Chinese government asked ByteDance to turn over large amounts of user data, they could be forced to comply.  

TikTok representatives say that this would never happen. 

“We have never shared TikTok user data with the Chinese government, and would not do so if asked,” one TikTok spokesperson said in a statement provided to YR Media.

However, experts on Chinese corporate interference (and the U.S. government) aren’t so sure.

In an article published in partnership with the Brookings Institute, an American think tank specializing in public policy, China-based journalist Jordan Schneider says that the leadership at ByteDance has a “complicated relationship” with Beijing, and that the company has given into pressures from the Chinese government before. For example, Schneider wrote, ByteDance decided to shut down another popular social app back in 2018 after it was deemed too “vulgar” by the state.

“At the end of the day … there is very little that these firms can do to push back in a party-state environment,” wrote Schneider.

Problem #3: Because TikTok’s American audience is so large, bad actors (including the Chinese government and ByteDance itself) may try to use the app to influence how Americans think about political or social issues.

In the same way that Facebook, Reddit and other social media apps have become breeding grounds for political disinformation and foreign propaganda, TikTok is not impervious to abuse from people who seek to push specific political agendas to the app’s estimated 85 million American users.

There have already been several reports of ByteDance purposely censoring certain videos and hashtags that would be considered controversial in China or the U.S., such as clips from protests in Hong Kong, references to Tiananmen Square, and even #blacklivesmatter and #georgefloyd. Additionally, The Intercept reported that internal documents showed TikTok moderators were instructed to stifle creators who were deemed “too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform.”

TikTok later apologized for suppressing Black Lives Matter-related videos in a company blog post, saying, “We acknowledge and apologize to our Black creators and community who have felt unsafe, unsupported, or suppressed. We don't ever want anyone to feel that way. We welcome the voices of the Black community wholeheartedly.”

Additionally, the company has made efforts to be more open about how its algorithm works, in part by posting Transparency reports. Still, experts worry that the suppression of certain ideas or voices on the platform could lead to widespread misinformation, particularly among the app’s largest demographic: young people. 

This is particularly concerning right now, as we approach the 2020 presidential election and as widespread movements for social change — some of which are being led by young people on TikTok — continue to gain steam in the United States.

“Many analyses of TikTok’s potential dangers highlight the issue of data privacy — but the threat of political interference through algorithmic manipulation is, in my view, more concerning,” Schneider wrote.

Across the board, experts disagree as to how dangerous of a security threat TikTok actually poses, and the company has done its best to distance itself from its Chinese parent company. Here’s the full statement provided to YR Media by a TikTok spokesperson:

There's a lot of misinformation about TikTok out there. TikTok has an American CEO, a Chief Information Security Officer with decades of US military and law enforcement experience, and a US team that works diligently to develop a best-in-class security infrastructure. TikTok US user data is stored in the US, with strict controls on employee access. We have never shared TikTok user data with the Chinese government, and would not do so if asked. These are the facts.

Still, TikTok’s future in the U.S. — at least at this very moment — remains pretty uncertain.

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