There has been a lot of controversy about video social media app TikTok recently. It started off with the skyrocketing popularity of the app and now there are serious questions about its ties to information gathering and the Chinese government.
The app was launched in China in 2016 and already has amassed 800 million active users around the world. In just the month of April 2020, TikTok was downloaded over 2 billion times.
The coronavirus pandemic and stay at home orders created the perfect environment for the video app to grow, as people sought out other ways to entertain themselves.
But that rise in popularity has also brought more scrutiny on just how safe the app is to use and whether personal information of Americans and other users is being sent to China for use by the government.
The Trump administration is currently contemplating a ban on TikTok, and many others have already banned its use due to security concerns. Some of those who have banned the app include:
- The various U.S. Armed Forces Branches (Navy, Air Force, Army, etc.)
- The TSA
- Wells Fargo
- Amazon initially banned it, but then rescinded that notice
Anyone worried about web protection for their family or at their office most likely had TikTok show up on their radar recently due to the controversy.
We’ll take a look at why the app has become so popular and whether it’s safe to use or not.
Why Has TikTok Become So Popular?
TikTok is an app that began as a way to create short lip sync videos and share them socially. It’s grown into the next big “must have” social media application, and while the music is still a popular feature of the app, it’s become much more than mimicking singers.
The app allows users to post videos of themselves and use filters, background music, or their own sounds to edit the video in the app. They can also use effects like slowing down or speeding up the video.
The video clips are just 15 seconds and can be connected for a clip up to 60 seconds long. The short-form format is one that’s become popular in this age of short attention spans.
Many video-based platforms saw a huge rise in users due to the pandemic lockdowns. Apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have been adopted in droves for video conferencing, and TikTok gained popularity not only as a form of entertainment, but also as a free way to advertise.
Small businesses, such as Jay’s Fresh Pressed Lemonade in California, started using the app to reach out to customers in a fun way, and were pleasantly surprised at the success of promoting their business on the app. TikTok has helped their bottom line during the pandemic closures and now some worry about it being banned.
Is TikTok Safe? Should You Worry About Your Privacy?
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a company that is based in Beijing, China. Because of the Chinese government’s history of control over companies that operate within its country, there are serious concerns that user data, could be used by the government.
Because TikTok is used on smartphones, data could include the ability to track people, which is why the connection of the app to China has everyone concerned.
What Type of Data Does TikTok Collect?
The app collects similar data to other social media sites, like Facebook or Twitter. It can be more or less, depending upon your user permissions.
Data that can be stored by the app includes:
- Phone number
- Email address
- Phone contacts
- The videos you upload
- Location data using GPS
- Contents of private messages
- Type of device you use
- Social network connections
- Profile information, like your image
Where is TikTok Data Stored?
The company that owns TikTok says that there’s no need to be worried about privacy when it comes to the Chinese government because it doesn’t store data in China.
ByteDance states that its data is stored on servers in the US and Singapore and entirely outside China. They also state that “none of our data is subject to Chinese law.”
How Secure Is Your Data?
The company states, “We use reasonable measures to help protect information from loss, theft, misuse and unauthorized access, disclosure, alteration, and destruction. You should understand that no data storage system or transmission of data over the Internet or any other public network can be guaranteed to be 100 percent secure.”
It also notes that if any of your data is collected by 3rd parties (such as advertisers or other apps connected to TikTok) that the TikTok service is “not responsible for protecting the security of such information.”
Should You Trust TikTok?
Currently, the controversy surrounding TikTok keeps changing daily. The latest is that Microsoft is in talks to purchase the app and the White House may possibly hold off on a ban if that happens.
As it stands, you are taking a risk by using TikTok and sharing any geolocation or other personal data through the app. You can choose not to share GPS data which would make the app slightly less risky as far as your privacy.
While the app maker states its data is secure from Chinese government jurisdiction, ByteDance is still a Chinese-based company and we all know it’s easy for data to be transmitted from one country to another in a flash. Just because its servers aren’t in China, doesn’t mean the government can’t still coerce that information from the company.
So, if you use TikTok, understand the potential risk. It’s also possible that TikTok will be owned by a U.S. company in the near future, not eliminating the normal social media privacy risks, but making it much less likely your data will end up in the hands of the Chinese government.
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