TikTok has displaced Instagram as the primary driver of online culture.
The shift is undeniable, given that much content on Instagram consists of reposted TikToks. The app’s ability to provide fodder for originality and creativity has spurred the newest online generation to migrate to the video sharing app and primarily generate content there. But the app has become the newest point of contention in the US-China rivalry, of which stolen intellectual property and surveillance are big sticking points.
Originally known as Musical.ly, the app was purchased in 2017 by the Chinese company ByteDance — one of many tech companies based in China that are subject to Chinese laws. According to WSJ, “it is no secret that tech companies must hand over data to Chinese authorities when requested, as well as censor content and comply with other information restrictions.”
Given the proximity of the Chinese tech industry to the country’s government, it is no surprise that the U.S. is pushing back. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News last Monday that the US was considering banning TikTok. In response, a spokesperson for the company declared that the company has “never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”
TikTok issued a similar assurance of their data security in response to India’s decision to ban the app among sixty others, a retributive act for the China-India border clashes as of late. A statement released by India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology announced that the banned Chinese apps were “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India.” The Chinese government did not immediately comment on the move.
But TikTok’s questionable security became the talk of tech-town when Amazon came out with an internal memo forbidding employees from installing TikTok on their phones, then walking back the memo only hours later. Notably, the American military has already banned the app. These developments leave people asking whether there is a very real danger in downloading TikTok.
The answer is not straightforward — if it was, TikTok would already be banned. Besides the usual dangers (data collection, monetization, targeted advertising a la Facebook and Google) of any social media application, in addition to some security concerns that have since been patched up, there isn’t a glaring reason to ban the app. We have yet to prove that user data from the app is being handed over to third parties and leveraged for malicious purposes. Thus, on an individual level, the threat is not that great. But if you consider what can be done with user data information once collected and engineered en masse, the danger is in fact considerable.
Remember Cambridge Analytica (CA)? Armed with the profiles of up to 87 million Facebook users, CA was able to build a “psychological warfare tool” in the form of personality profiles for the 2016 election. It’s unclear how effective their psychographic profiles were in influencing voters with targeted ads, yet we know how the election ended: in favor of the Republican party, by which CA had been contracted.
Cambridge Analytica and the Russian Facebook ads of 2016 demonstrates how powerful social engineering can be when delivered via social media and informed by a user’s usage of the platform in question. And TikTok has been downloaded 123.8 million times in the US — it’s sheer scale presents a massively intimidating, and potentially useful, dataset. Despite what TikTok says, the company still answers to the law of an adversarial foreign government that clearly monitors and censors its citizens (look at the new Hong Kong laws).
Download TikTok? I personally would knock it.
Published exclusively in Brown Tech Review. Image source.