So far, the arguments for banning TikTok have been rooted more in fear than actual evidence. The best that can come out of this fear is for Congress to finally realize that we need privacy rules and kids’ guardrails in all apps — not just those with Chinese owners.
Your kids’ apps are spying on them
To decide what’s right for your family, weigh up the worst that could happen if the Chinese government got your TikTok data. I can help you understand your risk. And whatever you decide, you should take steps to protect your data — see below for actionable advice.
What is it all about?
TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance. In China, the government censors the internet and uses online surveillance to control people. The government also has a lot of control over how internet companies operate.
The US side of TikTok has been caught doing a number of things that barely inspire confidence, including spying on journalists (which it owned), suppressing black creators (which it called a bug), and allowing workers in China access to non-public information about US users (which it says is now tightly controlled).
How TikTok ate the internet
All of that has made TikTok a political target. It is currently negotiating security practices with the Biden administration, which has the power to force it to sell to a US owner. In December, Congress banned TikTok on all federal devices, and more than two dozen states have enacted similar bans on government devices.
Now there is a bipartisan push to ban it completely. Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) on Thursday called on Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced a bill to ban the app completely in the United States. He called TikTok “a major security and privacy concern for every American, especially children.”
I don’t take that lightly. Many politicians who want to ban TikTok are not its users. But for millions of Americans — particularly Gen Z — TikTok is a hugely important place for self-expression and exploration. If you forbid it, intergenerational warfare can ensue.
So there better be a really good reason to delete TikTok. Personal technology decisions should be based on evidence, not politics. Let’s zoom in on the two biggest concerns.
Concern 1: TikTok gives your data to the Chinese government
Hawley says that “if you have TikTok on your phone, it reads your emails, it views your photos, it accesses your contact list and it makes that information available to the Chinese Communist Party, period.”
Yes, TikTok collects a lot of data. I made the list above with the help of Disconnect, a privacy software company that first helped me track TikTok’s data trail in 2020. It found that TikTok has followed Facebook’s lead and tracked how much data it collects, with notably including tracking web pages you visit outside of TikTok.
But we found no evidence that TikTok reads your emails, as Hawley said. Facebook still collects more data than TikTok, including collecting your exact location and anything else you enter on your profile. The same goes for Google, which tries to record a history of where you go and all the pages you visit in its Chrome web browser.
So does the Chinese government have access to what TikTok collects?
TikTok says it has not shared US user data with the Chinese government and will not do so if asked. Since last summer, it says it has redirected all US data to cloud services from Oracle, one of Silicon Valley’s largest companies.
But parent company ByteDance is still obligated to comply with requests for user data under Chinese law, and it’s not clear how ByteDance could resist. Oracle declined to comment on the record of how it is keeping the government out.
“Once the data is collected, we have no idea where it goes,” said Patrick Jackson, Disconnect’s chief technology officer. “People are grasping for the worst-case scenario and maybe it’s healthy to think about the worst things that could happen.”
Judge for yourself when TikTok’s CEO testifies before Congress in March. Even without evidence of smoking guns, I understand that some might think that a Chinese social media company is inherently less trustworthy than a US company.
If that’s your view, security experts say you should still weigh any online risk based on your own personal exposure.
So if you are a government employee, a Chinese citizen abroad or any other high profile person, having your data in the hands of the government can be catastrophic and you should stay away. Likewise, some journalists I respect don’t keep TikTok on their phones because we know the company has both the motive and the opportunity to abuse its access. (TikTok says the employees who tracked journalists went rogue and were fired.)
However, for the average person, it’s harder to see the individual risk to the data we know TikTok collects. Chinese officials are probably not interested in who your friends are, what you look at or who you meet. The Chinese government has less power over you in the US unless you have family or business interests in China.
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This may not make you feel any better, but China has been collecting data on Americans long before TikTok. China has been implicated in major personal data breaches, including hacks on the US Office of Personnel Management and those on Equifax that affected nearly half of all Americans. Even worse, China could also buy data about us from the data brokerage industry that tracks and sells our personal information to companies around the world. Just like any other government or company.
In that sense, deleting TikTok alone is like sticking your little finger in a really big leak.
Concern 2: The Chinese government determines what you see on TikTok
What if TikTok is a Chinese tool to spread its own propaganda?
In his letter to Apple and Google, Bennet wrote: The Chinese Communist Party “could force TikTok, through ByteDance, to use its influence to advance Chinese government interests, for example by tweaking its algorithm to present American content to American to undermine or dampen democratic institutions. criticism of the CCP policy.”
The very thing that makes TikTok so popular – its “For You” algorithm that personalizes a different collection of videos for each user – makes it hard to see how the algorithms could tip the stage.
As states ban TikTok on government devices, the evidence of harm is thin
I searched TikTok for Shen Yun, an American dance performance group that is highly critical of the Communist Party. TikTok’s first suggested search term was “shen yun dance cult.” That mirrors the language the Chinese government has used to describe the Falun Gong movement associated with the dance troupe.
TikTok said its search functionality is powered by data from other searches and popular hashtags. It pointed out that a Google search also comes up with “dance cult” as a suggestion.
To address some of these concerns, TikTok has proposed that its content recommendation and moderation systems will be reviewed by Oracle and an additional independent third-party inspector.
But what if the real goal is more nefarious: to make Americans dumber? Critics, including Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) have noted differences between the US TikTok app and its Chinese equivalent, called Douyin. It restricts users under the age of 14 to 40 minutes a day, and emphasizes topics such as science in line with Chinese regulations to reduce the time teens spend on social media and gaming.
I haven’t been able to find a comprehensive analysis of TikTok’s US video trends compared to Douyin’s, but I do see US accounts such as The Science Channel achieving over 50 million views for a video.
“I have advocated for new safeguards to ensure that social media services do not exploit American children,” Warner said in a statement. “Until Congress moves forward on these safeguards, I think families need to have a real conversation about whether the risks to your data are worth having the app on your devices.”
If that’s your concern, TikTok isn’t the only exploitative app you might want to remove.
If any of the above sounds just too risky for you, it’s time to get rid of TikTok. When you do that, you not only delete the app, but you also delete your account. Go to Settings → Account → Deactivate or delete account.
For everyone else, there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure:
- Do not allow TikTok access to your contacts, some of the most intimate information on your phone. Tap Settings → Privacy → Sync contacts and Facebook friends and make sure both are turned off. If you’ve shared them before, you can also delete them here.
- Create a new and more anonymous TikTok account. Use a disposable email address and don’t link it to your phone.
- Block TikTok’s ability to track you outside the app. On iOS and Android, say no if the app asks for permission to track you, or better yet, adjust the setting so that no app can do this. Use an app like Disconnect’s Do Not Track Kids, which prevents all trackers from reporting to TikTok to further restrict tracking.
- Use TikTok without an account. You can still watch TikTok videos on the open web, but you can’t follow specific accounts or upload your own videos. That won’t completely stop TikTok from collecting data about you, either.
Take a defensive stance. Like Facebook and other apps, TikTok’s main goals are to gobble up your data and keep you hooked – not to help you become better informed.