On Tuesday, Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD) announced the government’s latest attempt to ban TikTok in the U.S. According to the senators, not to mention other politicians and government agencies, TikTok is a threat to national security designed to collect data on Americans and could be used by the Chinese government to spread pro-Chinese propaganda.
But based on a 2021 report by Toronto University’s Citizen Lab and a January report by Georgia Institute of Technology, TikTok is just as much of a threat to Americans’ privacy as competing U.S. based social networks.
“It’s very easy to get access to a lot of data about a lot of people that you can just buy from data brokers that you can access through building apps that use things like Facebook data,” explained University of Maryland professor Jen Golbeck, who studies social media and cybersecurity.
“There’s a lot of ways to get access to a lot of that data, and I think a lot of the kerfuffle around TikTok is specifically because it’s China.”
That doesn’t mean TikTok isn’t a potential threat to some users, but the massive push against the app doesn’t seem to match what publicly-available information says about the popular platform.
TikTok, like U.S. social media apps including Meta’s (META) Facebook and Instagram, Twitter, and Snap (SNAP), collects user data to sell ads. In fact, according to a 2021 study by Citizen Lab, TikTok collects the same kind of data as Facebook.
That information includes things like device data, technical specifications like screen resolution, network addresses, and hardware model names — all things that other social media apps collect. Not to mention, your interests, likes, shares, etc.
The difference is TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is based out of China, and that connection gives U.S. politicians pause.
“Nobody would be paying this kind of attention if it were British. It’s because it’s Chinese,” explained Herb Lin, a senior researcher at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.
TikTok says it currently stores Americans’ user data on Oracle’s servers in Virginia, rather than in China where they could be accessed by the Chinese government. And during Citizen Lab’s testing, TikTok didn’t contact any servers within China.
TikTok has also been accused of censoring topics that could make the Chinese government look bad. In 2019, The Guardian reported that the social network was limiting the reach of posts about Tibetan independence and the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. In 2020, The Information followed up with its own report on TikTok’s censorship policies.
The Citizen Lab report was unable to find conclusive evidence that the app censors specific forms of content that show the Chinese government in an unfavorable light. But the report did find that some posts seemingly disappeared, though Citizen Lab couldn’t tell if they were taken down by users or TikTok.
What does all of this mean? Likely that TikTok is no more of a threat to Americans than any other social media platform out there. It collects your data, sells ads, and tries to keep you glued to the screen as much as possible.
If anything, according to The Georgia Institute of Technology report, TikTok is more focused on making money than shipping Americans’ user data to China.
While TikTok may not be a threat to all U.S. consumers, it could still be problematic for some. Chinese dissidents living abroad, for instance, could put themselves in the crosshairs of the Chinese government by publicly posting information on the app.
Still, China’s Communist Party could more or less do the same thing by scraping similar information posted on Facebook or Twitter.
“If you’re not a defense contractor or you’re not someone who’s likely to be of specific interest to the Chinese government…then I would say your risk is much higher from Facebook and Instagram, all those things where those companies are doing the best to hire people to figure out how to make you more addicted to their product,” NYU Tandon School of Engineering professor Justin Cappos explained.
It’s uncertain if TikTok will ever actually be banned in the U.S. Even if Congress passes a bill banning the app, and Biden signs it, the company will likely file a lawsuit to have it struck down. For now, you can continue scrolling. Just remember, the app, like other social platforms, is always watching.