China-owned TikTok app might be a national security threat

The US government suspects TikTok is a potential national security threat, according to Reuters. A couple of US senators are concerned TikTok might be exercising heavy censorship and collecting users’ data.

What is TikTok?

TikTok is a social platform dedicated to sharing short lip-sync or comedy clips. The majority of their users are young people – 66% of them are under the age of 30. TikTok’s user base has been growing rapidly: over the past year, people downloaded it more than 750 million times. To understand how big of a deal that is, consider people downloaded Facebook 715 million times. Or, that Instagram had only 450 million downloads. Are these people uploading fun, innocent clips are actually putting their data into risk?

Data security issues with TikTok

There a few potential security issues with the TikTok application. First of all, TikTok is a former Musical.ly app – ByteDance, a China-based company bought it in 2018. Yet, the deal was never approved by a dedicated US authority. TikTok has never explicitly asked them for clearance.

As well, TikTok requests access to your sensitive data. According to their policies, it stores your location, IP address, and information about your device. TikTok may share this information with their business partners or advertisers. Although this app is owned by a company based in Beijing, it isn’t available in China. ByteDance claims data from American users is stored in the US and Singapore as a backup.

Finally, The Guardian investigated whether TikTok is censoring content that doesn’t please the Communist Party of China. One of the proof points was a recent makeup tutorial. It starts as any other beauty clip would – a girl with an eyelash curler in her hand, giving some beauty tips. A few seconds later, Feroza Aziz says to pick up your phone and search up what’s happening in China right now. She then briefly explains how Muslim Uyghurs are being abused by Chinese authorities. They’re being sent to concentration camps, families are getting separated, people are kidnapped, raped, murdered, forced to eat pork. Although the video wasn’t removed, TikTok suspended Feroza’s account from posting.

TikTok’s response

Even if TikTok stores US citizens’ data in US-based servers, the fact stands still: the app is owned by a China-based company. And, it must comply with China’s law on handing out user’s browsing information to the government. TikTok stated they have “no higher priority than earning the trust of users and regulators in the U.S”. They confirm users’ data isn’t managed according to China’s regulations: a dedicated team based in California reviews content under U.S. policies.

TikTok also denies censoring any anti-Communist China content. They say China’s government has never requested to remove any politically sensitive content. Even if they would ask it, TikTok would not oblige.

What’s next? 

Currently, the US government is investigating the data practices of TikTok. This could mean TikTok will have to sell its US business to a non-Chinese company. At the same time, TikTok hired a team to create moderation guidelines, so they don’t get accused of censorship.