Shunned by the U.S. government agencies, banned in India and controversial in other parts of the world, why do we recommend against using TikTok? In a little more than four years, Musical.ly has become one of the largest short-form video sharing platforms in the world (sort of a bite-size version of YouTube) In 2018 it merged with the TikTok app. According to TikTok, there are 30 million monthly active users in the U.S. It has gained popularity, in large part, because of its impressive music library, the app also offers a rich selection of video editing tools. Its algorithm, which uses artificial intelligence to make personalized recommendations for viewers, offers a video feed the minute the app opens, instantly sucking viewers in.
And yet, this app has become very controversial. So much so that the Federal government has suggested it might ban the app. And large corporations are beginning to prohibit its employees from adding the app to their company phones. Recently, Amazon asked its employees to avoid using TikTok (and folks, it wasn’t an error) and Wells Fargo outright banned it. Here are just some of the myriad reasons that TikTok has fueled so much controversy:
The Chancy China Connection
TikTok is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance, which is based in Beijing. We’re not just China-bashing, though. Chinese data laws allow any branch of the Chinese government to potentially access and view your TikTok activity. Thus, any data that is stored or processed in China is subject to state-sponsored surveillance. While TikTok has publicly stated that it doesn’t use China-based servers, that claim has come under scrutiny. A 2019 lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California alleges TikTok has surreptitiously “vacuumed up and transferred to servers in China vast quantities of private and personally-identifiable user data.” According to the filing, TikTok transferred user data to two servers in China – bugly.qq.com and umeng.com – as recently as April 2019, including information about the user’s device and any websites the user had visited. (Bugly is owned by Tencent, China’s largest mobile software company, which also owns social network WeChat, while Umeng is part of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group).
The U.S. Department of Defense Has Banned It
The Federal agency notes: “The advisory memo warns that “TikTok (formerly Musical.ly) application 12.2.0 for Android and iOS performs unencrypted transmission of images, videos, and likes. This allows an attacker to extract private sensitive information by sniffing network traffic.” Both the Army and Navy have banned its use by military personnel.
Other National Security Risks
TikTok may be collecting data on U.S. government employees (including those working as contractors). These are people who either have security clearances or could have clearances in the future or at the very least perform tasks that, if not classified, may still be considered sensitive in an unofficial sense. Data collection on these individuals and their activities can therefore reveal important national security information or be used in a coercive manner (that is, blackmail) to target those individuals.
The Music Industry Hates TikTok
Earlier this year, the National Music Publishers Association blasted the platform for allegedly having “consistently violated US copyright law and the rights of songwriters and music publishers” According to the Financial Times, a lawsuit against TikTok by its members as a “likely future step”. Universal Music Publishing Group allegedly is also weighing legal action if TikTok.
It Targets Children’s Data
According to eMarketer, 49 percent of American teenagers had used TikTok as of December 2019. The app still collects a range of data about all these users, including children under 13. In 2018, an investigation found that children as young as nine in Hong Kong were exposing their identities online via Tik Tok, the most-downloaded iPhone app for creating and sharing short videos.
Collecting Your Personal Data
This from Popular Mechanics: “The app does collect a ton of user data. And while it may not be malicious, users should at least be wary, and ask themselves if a social media app needs to have access to information like your hardware IDs, memory usage, the apps installed on your phone, your IP address, or your most recently used WiFi access points.” Listed as one of 11 apps that you should remove from your smartphone.
Tons of U.S. teenagers use TikTok and consume political content through the application. Policymakers have expressed serious concerns that TikTok users could amplify disinformation on the platform. Yes, Facebook has come under similar scrutiny for the same, as disinformation has proven to be corrosive to the democratic process. However, while the U.S. government and businesses can (and have) taken action against Facebook, they have no sway over the China-based TikTok.
TikTok released its first “Transparency Report” in 2019 after getting fined for $5.7 million by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. However, this report didn’t answer many of the questions that privacy advocates and others had about TikTok.
Censoring and Geoblocking?
The Washington Post reported last fall, for example, on the ways in which certain content that the Chinese Communist Party dislikes—such as information on the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests—was strangely absent from TikTok. Moreover, there’s the very real potential that when TikTok removes content within China’s borders it could also be removing that same content globally. That raises important free speech and human rights issues.
Check Point Research, security research firm, released a report in January 2020 that detailed multiple vulnerabilities in the TikTok app that would allow attackers to compromise accounts, obtain content, delete videos, and reveal personal information saved on the account.
Alternatives to TikTok
So, if you can’t use TikTok, what alternatives do we suggest? Instagram and Facebook are the two largest competitors to TikTok. Instagram appears not to suffer many of the problems raised its Chinese competitor … we can’t say the same about Facebook, yet. YouTube is rumored to be working on a competing app called Shorts. You might also want to consider platforms like Dubsmash, Funiamate, Byte and Triller. There are a number of smaller, and safer, video-sharing platforms worth your consideration.