One of the biggest social media news stories of the holiday break was the announcement that the US military has banned all of its personnel from using the Chinese-owned app TikTok on government-issued devices. The US Navy instituted a similar ban earlier in December.
As per Military.com:
“The guidance directs all Defense Department employees to “be wary of applications you download, monitor your phones for unusual and unsolicited texts etc., and delete them immediately and uninstall TikTok to circumvent any exposure of personal information.”
The concern stems from TikTok’s exposure to the Chinese Government through parent company ByteDance – under China’s cybersecurity laws, all Chinese-owned companies must furnish Chinese government requests for user data on demand. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Chinese government will request such, and TikTok has repeatedly noted that it doesn’t store American user data in China, limiting any potential exposure. But the lack of transparency around the Chinese regime, and its processes, continues to raise concerns, and may, eventually, force TikTok to drastically change its ownership profile, or risk losing out in certain markets.
The concerns from the US military make sense. Miltary and Navy crews are undertaking various covert operations at any given time, and data gleaned from TikTok usage could inadvertently expose the locations of such, leading to conflict. If the US military were, for example, monitoring Chinese activity in the South China Sea, a specific point of tension in recent times, that could be problematic – if the Chinese government did, in fact, request and/or access such data from ByteDance.
But should the same concerns relate to regular users of the app?
Clearly, there’s some level of issue with the potential of Chinese government interference – but really, what data does TikTok actually have? What could be gleaned about your own personal usage if such access were to be granted?
The problem here is more relative to scale than it is to case-by-case scenarios. You, personally, might not be concerned about sharing your details in the app – you may not consider it a big deal if a company or organization had access to your name, phone number, email address, etc. But with a large enough sample set, the data extracted by TikTok could reveal a lot – and Facebook’s recent data privacy issues highlight how, exactly, such can be misused.
For example, let’s say you have an active TikTok profile, and TikTok is recording what you watch, what you upload, along with your personal bio information, location data, etc. In itself, this may be harmless, but through your app usage, you’re creating a data profile which can be matched up with other users, and eventually, with enough correlating data points, trends begin to emerge.
Back in 2015, The University of Cambridge and Stanford University examined the Facebook profiles of more than 86,000 users, and then matched their on-platform data against their psychological profiles, which those users had submitted through a ‘personality test’ app. Their key finding? Your Facebook activity data alone could indicate your psychological make-up more accurately than your friends, your family – better even than your partner, given enough info.
The researchers were able to do this by matching up large data sets – one person watching videos from, say, Coca Cola, Nike, and liking content about dogs all might mean nothing, but over a large scale, those three trends could be highly indicative of anxiety or depression – or more liberal political leanings.
When you have a data set of millions – and worth noting, TikTok reportedly serves 26.5 million active US users, and has been downloaded 1.5 billion times worldwide – these trends become more indicative. It’s possible that, through such analysis, your TikTok usage could indeed reveal more about your personal leanings than you realize. What if, then, a political activist group wanted to use such insight to influence your opinion? What if the Chinese government, with access to such a database, wanted to influence western opinion among younger demographic groups about, say, the Hong Kong protests, or indeed, communism more broadly?
Your personal data, in itself, may not be a major concern, but potentially, there could be significant issue with such, if, as many suspect, the Chinese government could request, and get access to such insights, whenever it wanted.
But again, TikTok has repeatedly noted that this is not the case. An investigation last year found that TikTok had switched its data storage policies, and that no information from US users was, reportedly, stored in China, as of February 2019.
As per ByteDance:
“TikTok does not operate in China and that the government of the PRC has no access to TikTok users data. In the United States, TikTok is operated by our US entity.”
The distinction here is that ‘TikTok’, which was once known as Musical.ly, is actually not available in China, but an alternate, Chinese version of the same app, called ‘Douyin‘, is. The two apps are not the same, TikTok says, and TikTok’s information is held separately.
So, nothing to worry about, right? TikTok data is not available to Chinese authorities, the databases are separate. We should be all good. Right?
The US military decision to ban access to the app shows that this is not yet the case, and while TikTok has again moved to reassure users with its first transparency report – which shows that no takedown requests have been received from China – while the company remains Chinese-owned, concerns will remain. And there’s probably not a lot that TikTok can do about it.
ByteDance has even floated the idea of moving its base of operations out of China completely in order to appease concerns, but even if it did, there’s no guarantee that such issues would go away. The isolationist and secretive nature of the Chinese government, and its links to any company operating within its borders, will always lead to a level of scrutiny. TikTok may be fine, there may be no real need for concern, we may all be able to watch and interact with fun, short video clips without issue. But the specter of data manipulation looms.
And in the wake of the 2016 US Presidential Election, and ahead of the upcoming US poll, that doesn’t look set to ease any time soon.