U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has indicated the Trump administration is considering limiting U.S. users’ access to the popular video-messaging app TikTok. The Chinese-owned company has faced scrutiny in Washington as concerns grow that Beijing could tap the social-media platform’s information to gather data on Americans.
TikTok, which has said it wouldn’t hand U.S. user data to Chinese authorities, has exited two international markets in recent weeks, as the first global social-media sensation to emerge from China seeks to navigate a variety of geopolitical tensions.
Here is a look at TikTok’s user data practices and the concerns that U.S. officials are raising.
What kind of user data does TikTok collect?
If you opt in, TikTok says it can collect your phone and social-network contacts, your GPS position and your personal information such as age and phone number along with any user-generated content you post, such as photos and videos. It can store payment information, too. TikTok also gets a sense of what makes you tick. It can track the videos you like, share, watch all the way through and re-watch.
Is any of this unusual?
Other social-media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter also collect large amounts of information about users. But TikTok is facing scrutiny because Chinese apps in particular have a reputation for grabbing more data than required to provide their services, often sending information to advertising networks, said Jon Callas, a senior technology fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union. “Chinese apps are frequently far more abusive than others—and we hate the others,” he said.
A TikTok spokesman said the app collects less personal data than some U.S. tech companies like Facebook or Google, whose products track activity across devices.
How secure is TikTok?
Like some other popular apps, TikTok has had security problems. In December, researchers at the security firm Check Point discovered a number of bugs in TikTok that could allow hackers to upload or delete videos from user accounts and gain access to personal information such as email addresses. Those bugs have now been fixed, TikTok says.
In March, researchers reported that TikTok was one of dozens of iPhone apps that were accessing data copied into smartphone clipboards without users’ consent, a practice that could give the app access to sensitive information—copied phone numbers or passwords, for example. Last month, TikTok said the data access was part of an anti-spam feature and that no such information left users’ devices, adding that it had removed that tool.
Why is the U.S. concerned?
Washington has become increasingly worried about what it views as the possibility of Beijing performing mass data collection on American citizens, following what U.S. authorities say has been a prolonged period of cyberattacks and other efforts to obtain such information. “If you are an American adult, it is more likely than not that China has stolen your personal data,” Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray said Tuesday at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
U.S. officials are concerned that the Chinese government is potentially building a vast database of information that could be used for espionage—identifying U.S. government employees who might be susceptible to blackmail, for example—says Susan Ariel Aaronson, a professor at George Washington University who has written about the national-security implications of data collection. There is concern in the U.S., she says, that if TikTok’s user data could be obtained by the Chinese government, that would enhance any such efforts. “You can use [artificial intelligence tools] to sort through it and find an awful lot of data about what you like and don’t like,” she said.
A TikTok spokesman said that the Chinese government has never asked the company for user data and that it would refuse such a request. “TikTok has an American CEO and is owned by a private company that is backed by some of the best-known U.S. investors,” he added.
Are U.S. concerns about TikTok new?
No. The app is currently under a national-security review by the federal government through the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. after lawmakers raised concerns that TikTok was censoring content to comply with Chinese government requests. TikTok has denied these allegations.
The Federal Trade Commission early last year fined TikTok nearly $6 million to settle allegations over data collection practices of children by its predecessor Musical.ly, which TikTok acquired in 2017. The FTC said the system collected information on minors without their parents’ consent and let accounts be public by default—potentially allowing adults to contact children through the app and see users’ location information. TikTok said it made changes to its app for younger users.
The U.S. already has banned TikTok within the U.S. military and the House passed a bill in March that would ban Transportation Security Administration officials from using TikTok.
Is TikTok the only app that has provoked such U.S. concerns?
No. U.S. national-security officials last year ordered a Chinese company to sell gay-dating app Grindr, citing the risk that the personal data it collects could be exploited by Beijing to blackmail people with security clearances.
Why does TikTok need the information it gathers?
TikTok says it collects the data to improve the app’s user experience, including by customizing content and providing location-based services. The data is also collected to inform its algorithms. TikTok says the platform will store your information for as long as it is necessary to provide the services to you.
Does TikTok share any information with Bytedance, its China-based parent?
Yes. TikTok stores its data on American users on servers in the U.S. and Singapore, but its website says that information can be shared with Bytedance or other affiliates. In an April blog post, TikTok’s chief information security officer, Roland Cloutier, said the company was working on “limiting the number of employees who have access to user data and the scenarios where data access is enabled.”
What happens to your data if you quit TikTok?
After a user quits the app, the information is stored in what the company says is an aggregated and anonymized format. Users can ask TikTok to delete their data, and the company has said in its policy that it will respond in a manner consistent with applicable law upon verifying your identity.
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