The dance challenges and pet videos posted to TikTok by over one billion users worldwide seem harmless enough. But on its way to becoming the most popular social media platform in the world, TikTok and its China-based parent company ByteDance have come under intense scrutiny for privacy and security concerns. After it was barred from federal devices on Jan. 13, some politicians continue to call for a total ban, making the app a flashpoint in debates over national security and U.S.-China relations.
“The amount of data these companies gather is staggering, and TikTok is really no different from any of the others,” said Jim Brown, associate professor of English and director of the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers University in Camden. “We used to think these companies were just tracking things like clicks, but now they track much, much more—from the amount of time we spend watching certain kinds of videos, all the way to the contacts in our address books.”
TikTok is not the first social media app to do this, nor is it alone in its quest to gather user data. Every digital platform engages in some measure of “social media mining”—the process of collecting, analyzing, and discerning actionable patterns or conclusions about their users. The results are often used for targeted marketing or advertising campaigns. Most users are aware that this is happening and have developed a level of comfort with it.
The difference with TikTok is that it is unclear exactly how much data the app is collecting and how it is being used. Additionally, some have raised fears that the Chinese government could gain access to U.S. user data by simply compelling ByteDance to hand over information.
“The relationship between corporations and state entities in China is obviously quite different from the United States, and that’s something we should acknowledge,” said Brown. “It would be more difficult for a U.S. state entity to gain access to social media data from a U.S. company.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray has said that the agency does have national security concerns regarding the use of the app. To date, the entire U.S. federal government, 31 states, and more than a dozen colleges and universities have banned the use of the app on directly managed devices or networks, and legislation with bipartisan support has been introduced in Congress to ban the app in the United States altogether.
“We are talking about laws and regulation when it comes to TikTok,” Brown said. “But why not a broader conversation about how much data is being collected and harvested in ways that users only halfway understand?”
In Europe, that conversation has led to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The GDPR regulates the use and distribution of personal data and gives users more control over their data than they might have in the United States. Still, many American users may feel that giving up a degree of privacy is simply a consequence of modern life. It is that loss of privacy and personal data, however, that leads to an equally troubling issue: manipulated posts, misinformation, and targeted propaganda.
“Beyond TikTok, we have significant evidence of manipulation and microtargeting on multiple social media platforms,” Brown said. “Congressional investigations revealed Russian actors like the Internet Research Agency have used microtargeting to interfere in U.S. elections by exploiting divisions around racial justice and political polarization. A hyper-focus on TikTok and the Chinese government may be stopping us from having more important conversations about how the Internet is driven by corporate interests with one concern: our constant attention.”
Creative Design: Douglas Shelton