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TikTok caught tracking user data. Another nail in the coffin?

TikTok has been a hot-button topic in the news as of late. On one hand, the app is more popular than ever — with more than 100 million registered users in the U.S. alone. On the other, the app has become a security concern for the U.S. government due to threats of espionage and data collection from Chinese government affiliates.

Because of these security threats, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that outlawed transactions between U.S. citizens and TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, due to national security concerns. Tap or click here to see why the administration considers TikTok a security threat.

The decision to ban TikTok was initially met with controversy, but new reports of the app’s abuse of user data are causing many to reconsider their support for it. TikTok has allegedly skirted a privacy safeguard in Android phones that allowed it to track users without their permission. Here’s how they did it, and why it matters for your privacy.

TikTok stalks while you walk

According to reports from the Wall Street Journal, TikTok has been exploiting a bug endemic to Android OS that allowed it to collect the MAC addresses of millions of users without their permission.

MAC addresses are unique device identifiers that apps can use to track phones for ad-targeting purposes. If a company knows your MAC address, it essentially can pick out your device from others. Without giving users a chance to opt out of this data collection, TikTok effectively tracked users without their knowledge or consent.

When pressed by reporters, TikTok didn’t even deny the claim. Instead, it reiterated that the “latest version of TikTok” does not collect MAC addresses, and urged all users to “download the latest version of the app.” The silence here is deafening.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Department of Defense explicitly banned the installation of the app on military phones weeks before President Trump’s executive order was signed.

Running the clock on TikTok

To help you understand the full scope of the controversy, here’s a quick rundown on the confusing tale of TikTok.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on August 6 that barred American citizens from participating in transactions with ByteDance, the Chinese company behind the wildly popular TikTok app.

This action was incredibly broad and effectively banned any advertising on the service. Under the order’s text, companies like Apple and Google couldn’t even offer the app on their respective app stores for Americans to download.

Per the order, ByteDance has 45 days before the restrictions take effect. During this time, TikTok has the freedom to divest its U.S. assets from its parent company should the service wish to continue operating here.

Upon signing, the order generated significant controversy across social media. The debate was especially fierce on TikTok itself, with 64% of registered users opposing the decision according to Harris Poll data shared with USA Today.

On the flip side, the reception to the order was far more positive outside of social media, with 57% of American adults approving the move according to the same poll data.

Another interesting note: This executive order arrived at an opportune moment, considering plans from Microsoft to buy TikTok and take over operations of the service.

Microsoft’s window of opportunity

According to reports from the Financial Times, Microsoft is in the early stages of talks with ByteDance to acquire the company. And not just TikTok’s U.S. assets, mind you, but the entire platform altogether.

This wouldn’t close down ByteDance altogether but would cause TikTok to change hands and become an American-owned and operated company. Per the executive order, TikTok only needs to break up its U.S. portions to comply, but Microsoft swooping in would give the company even more leverage against competing platforms like Facebook.

And the cost of this proposed deal? Try a whopping $10 billion minimum. Early talks even indicate the pricetag could be as high as $30 billion!

If that sounds like a ripoff to you, don’t forget that Microsoft isn’t just buying the service from ByteDance — it’s buying all of its user data as well. Tap or click here to see why data is so valuable to social media platforms like Facebook.

This move isn’t unanimously loved by Microsoft staff, however. According to reports from Windows Central, many Microsoft employees have sounded their displeasure at the move to buy TikTok, and are urging Microsoft to reconsider. Even Bill Gates himself, although no longer an executive at the company, considers the deal a “poisoned chalice.”

Facebook turns up the heat

Never to let a good opportunity go to waste, Facebook has introduced a feature on its Instagram platform that competes directly with TikTok. Should the ban go through (and if ByteDance’s dealings with Microsoft fizzle out), TikTok users would have a new app to migrate to — something that TikTok’s own CEO called a “copycat product.”

Dubbed “Instagram Reels,” Facebook’s new product allows users to record short videos, set them to music and add filters just as they would on TikTok. But unlike TikTok, Reels is now baked into the latest version of the Instagram app.

This is a strategic move on Facebook’s part since TikTok and Instagram have a strong overlap of users. If any of these users already have Instagram on their phones while the ban takes effect, all they need to do is jump into Instagram without even downloading a new app. Plus, they’ll already have a previous set of followers to start off with.

Whether or not Microsoft goes through with its deal to purchase TikTok, it’s likely that Reels will be a part of Instagram for the foreseeable future. It’s not as if most of the social media platforms don’t already share overlapping features with other apps, anyway. Tap or click here to find out more about Facebook’s clone of Zoom.

We’ll be updating this story with more information on TikTok, its ban and its potential acquisition as it comes to light. In the meantime, take a moment to brush up on TikTok and why so many young people today are crazy about it.

Tap or click here to read Kim’s column explaining the TikTok phenomenon.

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