TikTok, the popular video-sharing app, has come under fire by the Trump administration several weeks after people used the app to flood Trump’s Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally with fake registrations in a mass prank. The administration is now considering a ban of the app due to security risks — a claim experts say is valid.
“Like a lot of other social media apps, TikTok seems too good to be true,” said Anita Nikolich, professor and director of the Active Computational Center at Illinois Institute of Technology. “The amount of data (TikTok) collects is above and beyond what other social media platforms collect.”
TikTok is owned by the Chinese tech startup ByteDance, which the Trump administration alleges collects user data that could be used by the Chinese government. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a recent Fox News interview that people should download the app only if they want their “private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”
On Friday, Amazon told workers to delete the app for fear of security risks, similar to the U.S. Army’s ban on the app in December 2019. But five hours later, Amazon appeared to backtrack, calling the ban a mistake.
The app’s privacy issues aren’t new. In May, four Illinois teens sued TikTok, alleging it had collected biometric information without asking. It’s one of several lawsuits in California and Illinois seeking class-action status.
Nikolich said the nature of TikTok as a video platform allows it to collect data about a user’s face. But, additional biometric information is collected, she said, like how users hold their phones and when and where they access the app. This information is used to create a “profile” of a user.
“Once these companies create a profile of you, they can further target you for phishing scams or email scams,” Nikolich said. “If they know you’re always going to the bar after work, it’s not that unusual that you might get a coupon or offer (in your email.)”
In March, iOS developer Talal Haj Bakry and developer Tommy Mysk discovered TikTok had access to a user’s clipboards. Any information copied was visible to the app, including passwords and other sensitive information. Bakry and Mysk later found that both the mobile apps for LinkedIn and Reddit could do the same thing. An iOS update by Apple no longer allows any app to collect data this way and the companies adjusted their code accordingly.
TikTok is popular among young adults and children. Teens know the privacy risks but don’t care, says Paul Booth, a professor at DePaul University who specializes in social media. The allure is the ability to connect with friends and people they might not otherwise meet. “It doesn’t affect them day to day,” Booth said. “It’s so hard to conceptualize how their data is used. It’s difficult to imagine.”
Part of the temptation is also potential fame. “They all want to be the next influencer,” said Booth. “Instagram is so big now, it’s like you’re one account of millions. TikTok still feels small.”
It’s important to remember TikTok isn’t really a small platform, Nikolich said of the app, which has 2 billion downloads. She doesn’t recommend people download the app due to privacy concerns. But, she said, there are ways to use the app that are safer.
“I think if you understand that the app is something that’s used for fun, if you don’t post something sensitive, if you get in a habit of turning off your phone — it’s less bad,” she said. “But there’s not a great way to use TikTok itself.”
Getting teens and children to care about their private information is a challenge. Booth says it’s important to start young. He also notes TikTok has an age restriction of 13, but there are still users that are younger. “For me, part of the solution is we need to teach digital literacy at, like, kindergarten,” said Booth, adding that adult social media users may also not know how their apps use their data.
Nikolich said these adults may not have an understanding of how students’ data is being used, not just on social media but also through educational apps. She said parents and educators should push tech companies to be clear about how this data is being used.
“You don’t need to be very technical to force transparency from these companies,” Nikolich said. “Ask them how they are using your data.”
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