Is TikTok Invading Your Privacy?

by Diana Drake

Just like YouTube and Instagram, the new application in town, video-sharing platform TikTok, is launching teens into social media stardom. With hundreds of millions of active monthly users worldwide, it’s not that much of a stretch for high-profile TikTokers like 18-year-old Baby Ariel to have nearly 30 million followers – as long as they keep the clever 15-second TikTok videos coming.

TikTok celeb wannabe Haley Sharpe, a 16-year-old from Huntsville, Alabama (with nearly 200,000 followers), was just featured in a long profile in Vox, the American news website known for explanatory journalism. As she rides the viral wave of her video shorts, Sharpe has one major worry: “I feel like my biggest fear,” she said, “is just fading into like, nobody remembers me on TikTok.”

If lawmakers in the U.S. have anything to say about it, our TikTok-related fears should be far greater. As the second most downloaded app worldwide, TikTok is an active part of teens’ lives, with some 110 million users in the U.S. alone, according to Sensor Tower. ByteDance, the Beijing, China-based owner of TikTok, is one of the few companies with a Chinese-owned social media app that has become popular in Western countries like the U.S. And that is leading to concerns about privacy and censorship.

Sharing or Spying?

In the past week, U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton reached out to the U.S. intelligence community asking them to assess the national security risks of TikTok and other Chinese-owned platforms. In a letter to Joseph Maguire, acting director of National Intelligence, they began, “We write to express our concerns about TikTok…and the national security risks posed by its growing use in the United States.” They went on to write, “TikTok’s terms of service and privacy policies describe how it collects data from its users and their devices, including user content and communications, IP address, location-related data, device identifiers, cookies, metadata, and other sensitive personal information. While the company has stated that TikTok does not operate in China and stores U.S. user data in the U.S., ByteDance is still required to adhere to the laws of China.”

In other words, the lawmakers are concerned that TikTok and similar apps could be used to spy on U.S. citizens, in part due to other recent China tech scandals. Huawei, a China-based multinational technology and consumer electronics company, has faced allegations that its wireless networking equipment could contain features that allow surveillance by the Chinese government. And the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States recently called for certain Chinese firms to divest their stakes in U.S. companies over concerns about the security of sensitive personal data. In their letter, the senators say, “Security experts have voiced concerns that China’s vague patchwork of intelligence, national security, and cybersecurity laws compel Chinese companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.” Others, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, have criticized TikTok for censoring news about the protests in Hong Kong, suggesting that the company is aligned with the Chinese government.

ByteDance has countered that its data centers are located entirely outside of China and therefore not subject to Chinese laws. Still, does this public outcry have some validity, especially related to your personal information? Are social media apps that are meant to provide a fun escape actually invading your privacy?

Looking specifically at TikTok, Wharton professor Gad Allon, director of the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology at the University of Pennsylvania, is pragmatic. “I’m not sure there is any real basis for this concern,” he says. “It’s not clear if these concerns about TikTok are actually substantiated.” He points to other factors, like the app’s addictiveness (which led to curbed use in India), and that few other China-based apps have had such wide international appeal, as potential reasons why TikTok is getting an elevated risk profile these days.

“If the main lesson from this TikTok story is that you should basically mistrust most apps, I think that’s not a bad message.” — Gad Allon, Wharton Professor

Allon does agree, however, with the underlying message about privacy that is inherent in the TikTok backlash. “You should be concerned about every app you are putting on your phone,” he stresses. “You have to assume that everything you’re doing, unless explicitly stated, is being tracked and measured. Everything you post and every communication, everything you watch, you should be aware of the fact that someone can make it public.”

For example, Allon recently discovered that every time you send a message on Facebook Messenger with a document or PDF file, Facebook scrapes that file and takes all the links for future reference. “If the main lesson from this TikTok story is that you should basically mistrust most apps, I think that’s not a bad message,” adds Allon. “We have become too complacent. For the name of efficiency, we don’t mind if our privacy is compromised. I feel there should be a discussion on what level we’re willing to compromise our overall privacy.”

Sparking Systematic Change

According to an article published this week in our sister publication, Knowledge@Wharton, most people don’t know how much of their activities are being tracked. This seeps into the broader topic of data privacy – not necessarily for governments, but for business use. “Most companies are collecting data these days on all the interactions, on all the places that they touch customers in the normal course of doing business,” says Elea Feit, senior fellow at Wharton Customer Analytics and a Drexel marketing professor. For example, a retailer would be keeping track of all the emails it sends you and whether you click on any of the links inside the email; it tracks your visits to its site and any purchases in a store if the retailer, say, has a loyalty card program. “Every time you interact with the company, you should expect that the company is recording that information and connecting it to you,” she notes. And in the scope of things, privacy policies, which consumers and users think prevent their information from being shared or used, are seldom actually protecting your privacy.

In the same article, Sebastian Angel, professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that society must value privacy much more than it does now in order to spark a systematic change in the way companies collect, share, sell and use data.

The first step toward that transformation is awareness and holding companies accountable. “We need more transparency,” says Allon. “Every app, including Facebook, Uber and others, should report what they do with the data and unless they do that and make it absolutely transparent, they shouldn’t sell their products.”

With the heightened scrutiny on TikTok, Allon adds that he believes security concerns, no matter how high-level, should not result in outright technology bans. “I find prohibiting the technology dangerous,” he suggests. “People talk about banning the use of facial recognition as a technology because it allows different regimes to practice surveillance capitalism. Not just regimes, but stores or wherever. There’s this notion of surveillance capitalism and basically suggesting that everything is about watching whatever we do and using it to monetize without having any repercussions. The reality is that all of these technologies can also be used for good purposes.”

Like creating funny 15-second videos in which you might — say — mimic the dance moves from the Wii video game “Michael Jackson: The Experience” (Haley Sharpe’s very first TikTok release). So, as the U.S. intelligence community responds to the senators’ spying concerns, should Haley and others worry about losing their TikTok time (and followers) forever? Probably not going to happen, says Allon. But if it does? “TikTok is not a technologically innovative product. If it goes away, something similar to it will come up.”

Related Links

Conversation Starters

Do you believe there is any validity to the claims by Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton? Why or why not?

Why does Wharton professor Gad Allon say, “If the main lesson from this TikTok story is that you should basically mistrust most apps, I think that’s not a bad message.”? Why does he feel that this technology is not necessarily trustworthy?

Sebastian Angel says, “Society must value privacy much more than it does now in order to spark a systematic change in the way companies collect, share, sell and use data.” How do you feel about privacy issues? Do you ever think about them when you’re downloading the latest app? What would it take for you to begin to think more about how your information is being used?

6 comments on “Is TikTok Invading Your Privacy?

  1. Sebastian Angel said, “Society must value privacy much more than it does now in order to spark a systematic change in the way companies collect, share, sell and use data.” and I agree with him because there are a variety of people that do not know their private information is being shared to different platforms and is seen by individuals that they do not know. When I download social media apps or apps in general, I always make sure that they do not share the information that I give them because I have family members that got hacked due to them sharing private information not knowing the consequences that were with it. Their mistakes made me realize that I should be more careful when I am giving information on social media. Gad Allon said, “If the main lesson from this TikTok story is that you should basically mistrust most apps, I think that’s not a bad message.” and I agree with what he said because we cannot really trust anything on the Internet these days. For example, even if an app like Tiktok says that they do not share private information with other people, how will we know that they are actually telling the truth? The only way to know is if we actually work for their company, and which majority of us do not. In conclusion, individuals such as myself should not trust anything on the Internet because we do not what is lurking behind everything we click on.

    • Thanks for commenting, Victor. Especially these days as we are all connecting virtually, we need to be especially mindful of our privacy and what we share. It’s easy to get careless when you are staring at your screen many more hours a day. A friend’s son was just hacked on Fortnite and the hacker took over his entire account and changed the password, then sent an email saying he wanted to connect on a social media platform. A bit of a different kind of privacy violation, but scary and very invasive nonetheless. Stay safe!

  2. I think this article is especially problematic nowadays, when all people are in quarantine and the only platform to communicate is SNS or internet.

    Reading the article, I agreed mostly with the director of Jerome Fisher Program Gad Allon. I think that this is not only the problem of TikTok but also that of every smartphone application.
    When individuals download smartphone apps, they type their private information and begin using that app. There are millions of SNS users; only some of the millions know which and how their data are used. If the input is 1,000,000, the output is only 10. I think that such discrepancy is deriving such controversy.

    For resolution, as professor Allon mentioned, I think that every smartphone application should provide its users transparent report of usage of users’ data.
    The gap between input and output will then be reduced; therefore, the users will feel more assured and relieved to use their smartphone.

  3. I believe this article explores the reality most people fail to notice, Most of us allow apps like TikTok to access our information without even knowing how these apps and companies could extract, use and sell private data thus invading privacy.
    I fully agree with Sir Gad Allon’s statement, “If the main lesson from this TikTok story is that you should basically mistrust most apps, I think that’s not a bad message.” as people should always be careful while using the internet and especially apps like TikTok as they are stealing your private information and this TikTok story would make people more aware about the privacy problems and make people more mindful while using internet.
    I personally believe to combat the issue of data extraction/invasion of privacy, future apps and website development should be based on the blockchain platform as it removes the problem of companies and apps being able to access our private data. There are various developments going around building online databases for hospitals and patients on blockchain network as it is impregnable to hackers and are far more secure than building databases on the internet where hackers could easily access medical reports. This shows that how reliable and secure blockchain technology is and would be an optimal solution to the problem of data breaches and privacy invasion if apps are built on it.

  4. “If the main lesson from this TikTok story is that you should basically mistrust most apps, I think that’s not a bad message.” The quote by Gad Allon reminds us to keep an alert mind to prevent ourselves from revealing our own personal information to society. I agree with this quote because you never know if anyone is telling the truth on the internet, especially when they say they will hide your personal information.
    As a three-year user Douyin or the Chinese version of TikTok, some of the features of the app truly scare me. A day ago, I was just searching on a shopping website to buy a blender. The next day, there was a recommendation of blenders in the first video I watched. It is irritating that all these social media accounts require us to submit our personal information, including age and location. Although TikTok has promised to keep the user anonymous, they continuously recommend people who are closely related to other apps like Instagram and WeChat.
    Some may say, “why don’t we just not sign up or provide information about ourselves?” This is what many users have been doing in order to avoid being found by someone they know. However, the apps are tricky in that if you don’t sign up, then they wouldn’t allow you to see anything. In addition, they are really shrewd into forcing us to sign up with our email or phone numbers that can be easily found out when it comes to commercials.
    The transparency of users’ accounts is a huge step forward to keep our privacy to ourselves without being afraid to leak their personal information. This would involve not asking personal information that is not related to social media. Examples are asking for the location or adding phone numbers or emails for notification on social media. There is such an idea called cyber manhunt where someone is able to track you through the location you have submitted online in order to find you. Transparency of the account allows the user to access different social media applications without being found and recommended to their friends or family members whom they may not want to connect to. The app or the website cannot detect who you are and wouldn’t connect to your phone number. This would greatly improve the privacy and safety issues that we are concerned about all the time on social media. This would also improve how we present our ideas for the public to hear without being rebutted by the ones who disagree with you. In this technological world, the necessity of transparency of users can prevent lots of cyber issues.

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