TikTok & COVID-19: Surging Users and Neglected Security — Op-Ed

By Natalie Craig

May 14, 2020

Photo Credit: Rolling Stone via Chesnot/Getty Images

The novel coronavirus has undoubtedly introduced several new problems into our world. Aside from health concerns and skyrocketing unemployment, people are beginning to speculate as to what the unintended consequences of the virus will be, especially with regards to technology. With fear of growing surveillance as a lasting result of the pandemic, one must turn their attention to technology threatening our personal privacy. Is TikTok the silent threat slipping through the cracks of the coronavirus crisis? 

TikTok, or Douyin in China, is a popular video streaming app created by the Chinese company ByteDance. The app has seen a surge in users over the past year with an estimated 120 million new users since November 2018. Along with its rise in downloads, security concerns have also surfaced. Last November, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States opened a national security review of TikTok, citing content censorship and data mining concerns.

Although the investigation is confidential, it has now been six months since it began and the number of new U.S. TikTok users continues to grow, especially during quarantine. Due to the distraction from the pandemic, the investigation into the app has been neglected, with the most recent action taken in early March when two U.S. senators introduced a bill to ban federal employees from using TikTok on their government-issued phones. This bill has only been introduced, and no other notable action has been taken against the app, leaving ample opportunity for the sources of TikTok’s security concerns to grow in influence. This negligence is problematic because the same security threats continue to exist, and as the app’s popularity grows, it will only become more difficult to either propel change or channel users to a new platform.

So what exactly are the problems with TikTok and why do they matter? First, there is the issue of data collection and the question of what they are doing with that data. TikTok’s privacy policy, the policy that most people blindly agree to when creating an account, openly states that they automatically collect data “including internet or other network activity information such as your IP address, geolocation-related data, unique device identifiers, browsing and search history (including content you have viewed in the Platform), and Cookies.” TikTok has access to the user’s location and search history, giving the app power to monitor its users. In addition to the disclosures in their published privacy policy, Proofpoint, a technology security company,  found that the app has full access to the audio, video and the address book on the device. ByteDance’s particular reasons for collecting this information are unclear, but they could feed the information to the Chinese government and, in turn, the government may manipulate the data in malicious ways. Although this data collection is similar to those of U.S. companies like Facebook, Facebook has taken steps forward in transparency and is not tied to a foreign government. 

In 2017, Beijing promulgated a new national intelligence law, with article seven stating that “any organization or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work according to law.” This change arouses apprehension with regard to ByteDance because it is a China-based company and therefore must abide by Chinese laws. The Chinese government’s interference with ByteDance was specifically evidenced as recently as this past April when the company was ordered to take down Feishu, a work-from-home app that allowed users access to banned sites like Facebook and Twitter. This clear meddling by the government ties back to the question of what TikTok is doing with the data it extracts from people’s phones — and what the Chinese government is doing with the data it requests from TikTok. As there are no clear limits on the national intelligence law, the app could, in theory, be used to monitor U.S. citizens, and depending on the citizen, this surveillance could constitute a national security threat. 

In another vein, TikTok challenges American values. In the U.S. we love our constitutional rights, with freedom of speech being one of them. However, TikTok has been known to censor anything that does not align with the Chinese government’s message, such as mentions of the Tiananmen Square incident or Tibetan independence. The flipside to this is that many U.S. users may tolerate this censorship because generally it does not directly affect them or what they watch and post on the app; however, regardless of if they know it, the app’s censorship directly challenges American political values of open access to information. Censorship crafts a particular narrative of what one group wants to be public and Americans should be aware of the narrative that they buy into when they access the app. The carefully-curated content on TikTok supports the same narratives as Beijing’s decision to punish Australia by suspending beef imports from major Australian meat processors after the Australian government called for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Not only does censorship threaten democracy, it allows a country to control the narrative that viewers consume, which could cast a negative light on the U.S. and stir public outcry based on misinformation. 

Several Americans have expressed concern over the use of location-tracking apps to help control the spread of COVID-19, but 123.8 million Americans have already willingly downloaded TikTok, an app that automatically tracks their location. Are we facing a surplus of apathy or misinformation? Regardless of the reason, we need to be proactive in considering the big-brother-esque potential of technology companies, specifically those with ties to a foreign government. 

Although giving U.S. citizens’ data to a foreign government may be unintended, there are no current limitations as to who can download the app, which poses a problem. As U.S.-China relations continue to deteriorate, one should be wary of trusting anything with too close of a tie to the Chinese government. U.S. citizens could become pawns in the disputes between the two countries, with the potential of personal private data becoming an issue of national security. Not only could the app pose a security threat, but it could also be one way that U.S. citizens begin to give up on their privacy concerns, leading more U.S. companies to follow in the footsteps of ByteDance in tracking user data and censoring dissenting content. 

Natalie Craig is reporting from Bentonville, Arkansas.