The current turmoil about the popular video app TikTok is geared towards data protection: the app is leaking, sells your data and belongs to a Chinese company. So who knows where this information is going? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has even suggested that the US "consider" banning the app.
The Department of Defense and large private companies like Wells Fargo have already banned their employees from having the app on their work tools. The Democratic and Republican National Committees have also warned against using it.
But is TikTok really that dangerous?
No more than other social media apps or online services, experts told Digital Trends.
Why TikTok is picked out
Richard Forno, former Chief Security Officer of the US House of Representatives and current director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's cybersecurity graduate program, claims TikTok is no more or less invasive than your Facebook or Google apps.
"I don't think TikTok differs significantly from other social media apps, services, or platforms," Forno told Digital Trends. "I think it was singled out because of the China connection."
The real and ongoing controversy with TikTok is that it belongs to a Beijing-based company, not a Western company, according to experts from ProPrivacy, a UK-based advocacy group for digital privacy.
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company, and there have been rumors in recent months that the Chinese government could use the app to spy on users around the world.
In a statement emailed to Digital Trends, a TikTok spokesman distanced the company from its Chinese owners and said, "TikTok is managed by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key executives in security, product, and public order here in the US We have no higher priority than promoting a safe app experience for our users. We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, and neither would we if we were asked to do so. "
TikTok stores its user data in the United States with a backup server in Singapore. The Chief Information Security Officer, Roland Cloutier, was hired in April 2020 after several decades in law enforcement and security.
Even if it's true that the app is spying, every social media app spies on you more or less to the same extent.
"When you look at the app, it's no better or worse than any other major social media platform that has had a big privacy snafus in the past decade," said Heather Federman, vice president of privacy and data security policies, Data Intelligence Company BigID. "The difference is that it's an Chinese-owned app. It's not great in terms of perception. In reality, it's the same thing you get with each app."
“When we think of concerns about how they came up on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, it's similar to TikTok because they still feel who you're following, your location, your contacts, your sense of identity, what you like and what it can draw clear conclusions and address you from a political perspective, ”said Federman, referring to the scandal in which the British company Cambridge Analytica collected user data for political gains. "That could still be part of the worry as it is a particularly sensitive political year."
Ultimately, the methods that both Western and Chinese companies use to collect data from users are "rightly problematic," wrote Ray Walsh, an expert in digital data protection at ProPrivacy.
TikTok poses a similar risk to Snapchat and Instagram, Forno said.
"The most important thing is to keep a cool head and separate the political noise from all technical issues," he said. A recent study published 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
However, according to data protection experts, online services still collect a lot of user data. And there are good reasons to be concerned about TikTok.
Forno said that users need to consider the metadata collected by the app; The time you spend with TikTok, your location, who you're chatting with, and much more are also sent to the app.
This is extremely useful for tracking users, and given China's views on protest and censorship, this could be a problem, he added.
While there are regulations in China that require companies to provide access to consumer data, Walsh says it is the “close relationship between China-based companies and the government that is causing so much concern among human rights and data protection lawyers.
In its recently released semi-annual transparency report, TikTok said it has received hundreds of requests from governments around the world for user data and post-shutdowns.
The company did not specify how many requests came from China, where instead of TikTok, a sister app called Douyin is operated. TikTok previously referred Digital Trends to Douyin for comments on government requests for user information. Douyin did not respond to a request from Digital Trends for a comment.
Pompeo's comments on 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," said Forno. "That would make a big statement and keep people from doing it."
Kurt Opsahl, General Counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Digital Trends that while it is unclear what Pompeo means by "ban", the Trump administration may be able to use the examples of bans on Huawei and ZTE devices, two other Chinese companies that have been subjected to US sanctions.
"But TikTok is different because, like Huawei and ZTE, it doesn't depend on government users, federal funds, or technology exports," Opsahl wrote in an email. He also pointed out that any law that attempts to ban software from the United States would pose problems with the first change because "code is language".
"The government is unlikely to seek a total ban on TikTok, for example that no one in the US can use the app," he said. "There is no law that would entitle the federal government to prohibit ordinary Americans from using an app."