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Security & privacy

TikTok: Is the video-sharing app a national security threat?

If there’s one app that’s defined social media for the past few years, it’s TikTok. Originally designed for sharing videos of karaoke and dancing, the app has skyrocketed to success as a fun, short video platform beloved by Generation Z.

Unfortunately, behind the glossy exterior lies a host of privacy concerns that are enough to make seasoned security researchers blush. Tap or click here to see what TikTok does with your clipboard data.

In recent weeks, the app has attracted attention for an entirely different reason: national security. The Trump administration reportedly has plans in the works to shutter the app for American users – citing privacy threats from TikTok’s parent company and the Chinese Communist Party. Is this app really that dangerous for Americans to be using?

There’s a party on TikTok – a Communist Party!

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated on the record to Fox News that the Trump administration is considering banning TikTok for American users. When pressed for a reason, Pompeo cited privacy concerns and warned that users who download the app could have their data end up “in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Is the TikTok app really spying on users for the Chinese government? Well, it depends on how you view businesses in China and their close relationship with the government.

TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is privately owned but enjoys a close relationship with the CCP. After the company’s first app was censored by government officials due to controversial content, ByteDance has been far more compliant with the government. It even made promises to employ more censors and CCP members going forward.

Following this, there have been several controversial incidents that revealed ByteDance’s close relationship with the CCP, including censorship of topics considered problematic for the party.

But these topics aren’t cited for the reason behind the Trump administration’s proposal. Instead, the administration cites data harvesting and overseas storage as the primary factor, as well as fears that this data may be used by the Chinese government for covert purposes.

These lines of logic do add up to something, but there is one big elephant in the room to consider: American companies like Facebook and Google do the exact same things with user data as TikTok.

Fine for me, but not thee – Is TikTok really that bad with your data?

TikTok, like most social apps, collects a vast amount of personal data from users’ devices – including account details, contacts, location and personal interests, such as favorite videos and topics.

This isn’t all too different from what Facebook and Google do with their own users. Both companies have also endured their respective share of controversy and legal action in light of privacy problems. Tap or click here to see how much money Facebook owes to the FTC.

But with Facebook and Google, both companies are openly hungry for your data in plain sight. You can easily look into the back end of each website and see how the data is used and collected. In some cases, you can even delete the data or set it to automatically delete. Tap or click here to find out how to make Google auto-delete your data.

But TikTok, on the other hand, is highly secretive about how it uses your data. The app’s official privacy policy makes note of targeted advertising, which is fairly standard for social media apps. But the data itself is encrypted and masked from outsiders, which means nobody can really see how it’s being used.

There’s also the fact that TikTok stores user data overseas. Despite a common misconception, however, the data is not actually stored in China but Singapore. Additional data is also saved to domestic hosts in the U.S.

Still, the combination of overseas data storage and masked communications can make using the app a whole lot less fun. Several prominent figures, including video game icon Tyler ‘Ninja’ Blevins and Jeff Bezos, have reportedly stopped using the app altogether for privacy reasons. Bezos’ Amazon even instructed employees to stop using the app.

Is TikTok actually dangerous for your privacy and security? Probably not any more than Facebook or another American platform would be. It just depends on how much you’re willing to trust the parties behind TikTok over the parties behind Facebook and others.

We’ll just leave you with this tidbit from TikTok’s privacy policy: “We may share your information with a parent, subsidiary, or other affiliate of our corporate group.” In this business, it’s all about who you know, isn’t it?

I don’t want to get rid of TikTok just yet, but how can I be more private when using it?

To stay private on TikTok, the best thing to do is avoid signing up with personal information in any way, shape or form. The information you share with the platform is explicitly collected, which should give privacy-minded users the signal that their real name, email address and phone number don’t belong anywhere near it.

Tap or click here to see our beginner’s guide to using TikTok.

When signing up for TikTok, use a throwaway email address and provide a fake name. If you’re posting recordings, avoid showing your face or any personally-revealing bits of information in the background.

Tap or click here to see our favorite way to make throwaway emails for website and social media sign-ups.

And last but not least, there’s a setting in TikTok you can disable called “personalized ads.” This will prevent the app from collecting data about you for the purpose of serving you advertisements, which will help make the experience that much more private.

But there’s a catch: The app will still track your data (including location and device data) in other ways. Just like with Facebook, there really isn’t a way to stop all kinds of data whatsoever. Why do you think these apps are free in the first place?

Maybe we should just take a break from data-brokering apps altogether, then. Tap or click here to see why Kim thinks it’s finally time to break up with Facebook.

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