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The TikTok ban, information gathering and ongoing debates

Raluca-Mara Mare

Staff Writer

Photo via ABC News.

The massively popular TikTok app is experiencing backlash from various lawmakers around the world concerning questionable information gathering and population control. Owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, the platform has over 1.2 billion monthly active users and crept its way into being the seventh most downloaded app in the 2010s, competing against huge social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. TikTok’s revenues increased drastically in the past few years, generating 4.6 billion dollars in 2021 followed by a 142% increase yearly (Apptopia). TikTok is known for peaking during the pandemic as the youth was confined and bored. In fact, the app’s quarterly downloads peaked in 2020 and 2021 at 318 million, a new record.

Then how come TikTok is involved in so many controversies if the app’s official website claims that “[their] mission is to inspire creativity and bring joy”? Well, the app gathers data. A lot of it. This issue led to the app’s complete ban in India in June 2020 over security and privacy concerns but also due to a military clash with Chinese troops. The conflict did not end there. Recently, Canada joined the U.S. and the European Union in prohibiting the app on governmental devices. Why? Governmental watchdogs report that the app represents a danger through significant data collection in comparison with other apps.

Some might feel relieved learning that the app is banned only on governmental-issued devices. However, the uprising debates regarding privacy concerns resulted in important questions, such as: Are we truly safe online? Technically, we are not. For example, the voluminous TikTok terms of service that no one ever reads allows the app to access your personal data, including contacts, calendars, IP address, usage and frequency of use, content viewed, location, and so on. It monitors your activity, including "keystroke patterns or rhythms, battery state, audio settings and connected audio devices,” as mentioned in those terms. Furthermore, the app has the authorization to identify "the objects and scenery that appear [in your videos], the existence and location within an image of face and body features […] and the text of the words spoken." Kind of creepy, isn’t it?

Going back to the current situation in Canada, TikTok was prohibited on governmental phones as of February 28. According to the Chief Information Officer of Canada, TikTok’s data-gathering techniques could lead to serious cyber attacks. Therefore, to limit this risk, the app was banned on all government-issued devices. Governmental data and “private” content can be accessed as easily as they would be on a person's mobile phone. This risk could equally be related to the ongoing tensions between China and the West. According to estimates, the Chinese government might utilize the app to collect user data or further its interests.

This ban resulted in a mixed response from users. Some highlight that all social media should be banned by virtue of privacy protection while others debate the fact that social media is too important in our lives to be prohibited. Of course, the current Canadian ban only applies to federal and provincial government-issued devices for work purposes, but it could always escalate into a permanent, global ban like in India. Moreover, the prohibition stems from much deeper than purely security and privacy concerns: precarious rapports, questions of trust, and geopolitics are integral to the issue.

In a recent American congressional hearing, TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew defended the company’s relationship with China. “Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” claimed Chew during the five-hour meeting at the U. S. Capitol in Washington D.C. (The Guardian). The tensions increased when Congress aggressively questioned the CEO throughout the sitting, resulting in Chew dodging important questions regarding what happens to users’ data, the ties to China and what TikTok does to prevent children from accessing harmful content. News headlines emerged as Chew was “grilled” by the lawmakers. This situation echoes the American climate of strong distrust towards China more than of the app itself.

The worldwide popular app has more than fun videos and cute filters up its sleeve. As with any other social media, it represents a threat to privacy and user data protection. However, ongoing debates seem to target the app’s provenance and data weaponization more than TikTok’s security threats themselves. The prohibition on governmental devices represents a certain degree of security against cyber attacks, yet the generalized lack of knowledge when it comes to personal data gathering remains alarming. For better individual cyber-protection on TikTok and any other online platform, it is highly suggested to use strong passwords and ignore suspicious links and unsecured public Wi-Fi. Furthermore, it is important to consider the other dangers social media represent such as addiction, reduced attention span, isolation, cyberbullying and reduced self-esteem.



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