TikTok and Data Privacy: A Timeline of the Company’s Controversies

It seems TikTok is all over the news these days, with people either describing the video-sharing platform as a propaganda machine for the Chinese government or an unfairly targeted social media company due to its origins. But very little is actually described into what the specific concerns of TikTok are and how they could be using your information. And that’s what Loginhood is here for: we’ve put together a synopsis on the accusations against Beijing-based startup so you can decide for yourself if it warrants concern. 

TikTok’s Background

TikTok was originally Musical.ly, a United States-based lip-syncing app. In 2017, Musical.ly was purchased by ByteDance, a Chinese-bsased social media giant, and rebranded to TikTok in 2018. If it feels like the popularity of TikTok was extremely sudden, its because Musical.ly had been building a loyal music-centric userbase for years prior. 

The purchase by ByteDance is, of course, a significant moment. Not just because it resulted in a massive exit for Musical.ly, but because ByteDance is based in China where the separation between private business and government is extremely narrow. So if TikTok was to collect as much data as Facebook, Google and other tech companies that are built on surveillance tactics, it could theoretically be forced to hand over that data to the Chinese Communist Party. But are they even collecting anything suspect? Let’s take a look at what we know. 

Suppressing Hong Kong Protests

The first questions of TikTok and China’s relationship came when, apparently, TikTok was purposely removing pro-Democracy videos in Hong Kong. Mark Zuckerberg even felt the need to speak out about the relationship with the app and China’s heavily censored realm of content. “Our content and moderation policies are led by our US-based team and are not influenced by any foreign government,” said a TikTok spokesperson to BuzzFeed. “The Chinese government does not request that TikTok censor content. To be clear: We do not remove videos based on the presence of Hong Kong protest content.” 

Spread of Chinese Propaganda

The exact opposite was true according to a report by The Guardian, as TikTok was caught instructing its moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong, according to leaked documents detailing the site’s moderation guidelines. The documents that The Guardian got their hands on reveal how ByteDance, the Beijing-headquartered technology company that owns TikTok, is advancing Chinese foreign policy by helping spread China’s culture of censorship and political aims. 

Data Collection Practices

So, now it seems that TikTok may have been involved in suppression of content to benefit the Chinese government. But content moderation is one thing – that doesn’t mean they are necessarily doing anything with your data, does it?

It can be very difficult to understand what data a company is collecting. But Mysk Apps did an excellent job investigating this. The video demonstrates TikTok loading code to read and store clipboard (what you copy & paste) as soon as you open the app and throughout your session. TikTok said this only happened because of its use of an old Google SDK (software development kit), but it is clearly still happening even after the company said it fixed the problem in April. TikTok has repeatedly publicly said, “We have a dedicated technical team focused on adhering to robust cybersecurity policies, and data privacy and security practices. We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period.”

Personally Identifiable Information

TikTok itself said it has “A dedicated team focused on adhering to robust cybersecurity policies…” Except, The Wall Street Journal just discovered in Google’s Android operating system, TikTok sidestepped privacy protections and regulations to gather personal identifiers from millions of mobile devices. TikTok’s prohibited data collection was hidden through an added layer of encryption and enabled the company to monitor users online without disclosing to them how much data they were taking and not allowing users to opt out. This secretive data collection technique by TikTok violates Google’s app policies on limiting app data collection, and Google will most likely be filing their own lawsuit soon.

TikTok’s Terms of Service

It’s become a common joke that no one reads the terms of service when signing onto an app. So in the case of TikTok, what exactly are you agreeing to when using its platform? Among other mentions of their data collection, like reading your messages on the platform, the terms state TikTok has the right to share all data with its parent company ByteDance and its affiliates. This means from a legal perspective, TikTok can share data with the Chinese Communist Party. TikTok has consistently denied they would ever do this, and we have no way of knowing whether they have or would. But to be clear: these terms of service give TikTok the ability to send your data to the CCP if they wanted or were required to do so. 

International Concern

Many politicians and researchers are claiming that President Trump’s TikTok ban is being used as political folly to improve his popularity, but this matter is not exclusively US vs China. Other countries like India have expressed concern and banned TikTok outright, along with other Chinese-tied apps. The entire global community is concerned about this, and rightfully so, given China’s constant human rights atrocities, IP theft of our tech community, and arrests of any critics. Using an app to gain mass surveillance and insight into a country or multiple countries you view as a threat or competitor sounds like it could join that aforementioned list.

Summary

So, is TikTok spying on you and sharing your information with the Chinese government? We have no way of knowing for sure (sorry if that was anticlimactic). 

But here’s what we do know: TikTok’s parent company has been caught suppressing anti-Chinese content and spreading propaganda. TikTok has been caught collecting your data that was generated outside of the app and mapping that data to users personally, without any way to opt-out. And TikTok’s terms of service state it has full right to share this collected data tied to you with the Chinese government, causing enough concern for multiple nations to ban the company. 

It’s up to you to draw a conclusion on whether these facts warrant continued use of the platform.