China has a well-documented appetite for data from Americans. Meanwhile, the popular China-based video app TikTok collects important information about its users.
That confluence has made the app a focus of concern among privacy guards, culminating last week in reports that the United States is positioning itself to ban TikTok.
The app has become a subject of great concern and paranoia, even reaching the world of electronic sports, with the popular gamer known as Ninja tweeting that he was removing the app due to privacy concerns. Wells Fargo Bank told its workers to remove the app. Amazon stepped up scrutiny of TikTok on Friday after a leaked internal email said company employees needed to remove the app from their phones. Amazon later clarified that no such edict had been issued.
But the reality of the TikTok threat is much more mundane and not particularly unique, experts say. While users should be skeptical about the app’s data collection and handling, the attention paid to the app is due more to how TikTok has ended amid growing social concern about data privacy and the growing paranoia about the threat from China.
TikTok has had major privacy concerns in the past and is reportedly being investigated by the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission for failing to properly remove videos from users age 13 and under, as required by law.
But that doesn’t mean the company is unique in the way it handles user data, said John Davisson, an adviser to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an expert group that advocates for online privacy for consumers.
“I think TikTok’s actions are alarming, and it’s good that federal regulators are paying a lot of attention to it,” Davisson said. “But ultimately, it is one of the many platforms that collect, use, analyze, trust, and leverage personal data.”
Like virtually all technology platforms, TikTok stores not only the content that users create on it, but also significant metadata on it, and will deliver that information to law enforcement if legally required to do so. According to a leaked document provided to the police and reported by Business Insider, for TikTok it can mean usernames, how and when users signed up for the service, phone numbers and device types, and meaningful location data.
While such information may seem invasive, it is the norm that telephone applications track it, especially location data, and that type of information is bought and sold daily in markets to which China has access.
“China could buy similar mobile data from data brokers or ad networks. Most ad networks are collecting the same information, if not worse, ”said Whitney Merrill, a former attorney with the Federal Trade Commission.
“I think if they really wanted to get this information, they would get it from a bunch of other sources, and not allow TikTok to make any incremental improvements,” said Merrill.
China has a proven record of sucking up Americans’ personal information. Many of the largest violations in the history of the United States, the attacks by Equifax, various insurance companies, and the United States Office of Personnel Management, are widely accepted as the work of Chinese intelligence.
Those attacks were part of a massive operation to steal and process the Americans’ data, FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a talk broadcast live on Tuesday.
“The data that China stole is of obvious value as it attempts to identify people for the gathering of secret intelligence,” Wray said. “On that front, China is using social media platforms, the same ones that Americans use every day to stay connected or find work, to identify people with access to our government’s confidential information and try to attack those people. to try to steal it. “
The Trump administration has yet to take concrete steps to ban TikTok from the United States, but the Pentagon banned its use for military personnel in December. Amazon, which has bid on huge military contracts, sent an email to staff on Friday saying it was banning staff from using the app on work devices, then announced in a press release that the email “was sent by mistake.”
As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stressed, Chinese law gives the state broad legal authority to inspect data stored in China or by Chinese companies.
TikTok has stated that it is not a problem. “We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we if they asked us to,” spokesman Jamie Favazza said in an emailed statement.
It may not be possible to know for sure whether TikTok could resist Chinese authorities if it demanded user data, but so far there is no indication of that, said Adam Segal, an expert on Chinese technology and national security at the Council on Foreign Relations. . .
“It all comes down to the argument that no Chinese tech company can resist the demands of the Chinese Communist Party or the data government,” Segal said. “We have no evidence that those demands were made or that the company would have to go ahead.”
“I don’t know what’s unique about the TikTok data,” he added. “Especially since they are mainly teenagers.”