As calls to ban TikTok grow, should you quit the app?
My takeaway: Despite being branded a national-security threat, there’s still little evidence that TikTok poses an extra personal threat to you versus other social media apps.
There still may be good reasons you might want to take TikTok off your phone, including disliking how it uses your data or how it impacts your mental health. The best thing that could come out of this scare is that Congress finally realizes we need privacy rules and guardrails for kids across all apps — not just the ones with Chinese owners.
To decide what’s right for your family, you have to weigh what’s the worst that could happen if the Chinese government did get your TikTok data. I can help you understand your risk. And whatever you decide, you should take steps to protect your data — see below for some actionable advice.
What’s all the fuss about?
TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance. In China, the government censors the internet and uses online surveillance to control people. The government also has a lot of control over how internet companies operate.
The American part of TikTok has been caught doing some things that hardly inspire trust, including spying on journalists (which it owned up to) and allowing employees based in China to access nonpublic information about American users (which it says is now tightly controlled).
All of that has made TikTok a political target. It’s currently negotiating security practices with the Biden administration, which could force it to sell to an American owner if it wants to continue operating here. In Congress, there’s a growing bipartisan push to ban the app entirely.
“TikTok surveils us all, and the Chinese communist party is able to use this as a tool to manipulate America as a whole,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) at the March 23 hearing with Chew. “Your platform should be banned.”
I don’t take that lightly. Many politicians who want to ban TikTok aren’t its users. (Of the 52 members of Congress at the hearing, it appeared only one has a public TikTok account.) But for millions of Americans — particularly Gen Z — TikTok is a hugely important venue for self-expression and exploration. Banning it could ignite intergenerational warfare.
So there had better be a really good reason to delete TikTok. Decisions about personal tech should be grounded in proof, not politics. Let’s zoom in on the two biggest concerns.
Concern 1: TikTok is giving your data to the Chinese government
Rogers said, “TikTok collects nearly every data point imaginable, from people’s location to what they type and copy, who they talk to, biometric data and more.”
Yes, TikTok gathers a lot of data. I made the list above with the help of Disconnect, a privacy software company that first helped me follow TikTok’s data trail in 2020. It found TikTok has followed Facebook’s lead and ratcheted up how much data it collects, particularly including tracking webpages you visit outside of TikTok.
But Facebook still collects more data than TikTok. Same goes for Google, which tries to record a history of where you go and all the pages you visit in its Chrome Web browser.
We did not find evidence that TikTok collects your precise location, an especially sensitive type of data that Facebook and Google do collect. Instead, TikTok collects information about your general city or town. During the hearing, Chew clarified that the app used to collect precise location in the U.S., but stopped doing so in 2020.
Chew also went on the record about two other types of sensitive data. He said TikTok’s ability to collect keystrokes in its app was used not to monitor users, but rather “to identify bots” for security purposes.
He also denied TikTok was keeping biometric information from your face. Rep. Earl LeRoy “Buddy” Carter (R-Ga.) also asked him whether the app uses the phone’s camera “to determine whether the content that elicits a pupil dilation should be amplified by the algorithm.” Chew denied this: “The only face data that we collect is when you use the filters to have, say, sunglasses on your face,” he said. “We do not collect body, face or voice data to identify our users.”
So does the Chinese government have access to any of what TikTok collects?
TikTok says it has not shared American user data with the Chinese government, nor would it do so if asked. Since last summer, it says it has routed all U.S. data to cloud services run by U.S. company Oracle and is in the process of moving older data there, too.
But TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is still compelled to comply with requests for user data under Chinese law, and it’s not clear how ByteDance would be able to resist.
“Once the data is collected we have no idea where it goes for sure,” said Patrick Jackson, Disconnect’s chief technology officer. “People jump to the worst-case scenario and maybe it’s healthy to think about the worst things that could happen.”
Chew, for his part, said that it wasn’t possible for him to prove that something isn’t happening.
Even without smoking-gun evidence, I understand some will think a Chinese app is inherently less trustworthy than an American app. “They haven’t done it yet. But my point is that you might have to and that’s where our concerns come from,” said Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX).
If that’s your view, security experts say you should still weigh any online risk based on your own personal exposure.
So if you’re a government worker, Chinese citizen overseas or other high-profile person, then your data getting into the government hands could be catastrophic and you should keep away. Similarly, some journalists I respect don’t keep TikTok on their phones because we know both the motive and capability is there for the company to abuse its access. (TikTok says the employees who tracked journalists went rogue and have been fired.)
For most people, however, it’s harder to see the individual risk for the data we know TikTok is collecting.
This might not make you feel any better, but China has been amassing data about Americans long before TikTok. China has been implicated in major personal data breaches, including the hack of Equifax that impacted nearly half of all Americans. Worse, China could also buy data about us from the data-broker industry that tracks and sells our personal information.
In that sense, deleting TikTok alone is like putting your pinkie finger in a very large leak.
Concern 2: The Chinese government decides what you see on TikTok
What if TikTok is a Chinese tool to spread its own propaganda?
Said Rogers of TikTok’s cultural influence: “It’s like allowing the Soviet Union the power to produce Saturday morning cartoons during the Cold War, but much more powerful and much more dangerous.”
The very thing that makes TikTok so popular — the “For You” algorithm that personalizes a different collection of videos for each user — makes it difficult to spot how its algorithms might be tilting the stage.
Rogers pressed Chew on whether TikTok had ever removed content about the 1989 Tiananmen massacre in Beijing. “We do not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government,” he said. Some dissidents do use the U.S. version of TikTok to criticize China.
To allay some of these concerns, TikTok has proposed that its content recommendation and moderation systems will be subject to review by Oracle and an additional independent third-party inspector.
But what if the real goal is more nefarious: To harm American youth? Critics including Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) have noted differences between the U.S. TikTok app and its Chinese equivalent, called Douyin. It limits users under 14 years old to 40 minutes per day, and emphasizes topics such as science in compliance with Chinese regulations to reduce time teenagers spend on social media and gaming. TikTok recently added a 60-minute time limit for U.S. teens, but left some easy workarounds.
I’ve not been able to find a comprehensive analysis of TikTok’s American video trends compared with Douyin’s, but I do see U.S. accounts such as The Science Channel rack up more than 50 million views for a video.
If that’s your concern, TikTok is hardly the only exploitative app you might want to delete.
How to protect yourself
If any of the above just sounds too risky for you, it’s time to delete TikTok. When you do, don’t just remove the app — also delete your account. Go to Settings → Account → Deactivate or delete account.
For everyone else, there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure:
- Do not give TikTok access to your contacts, some of the most intimate information on your phone. Tap Settings → Privacy → Sync Contacts and Facebook Friends and make sure both are switched off. If you’ve previously shared them, you can remove them here, too.
- Set up a new and more anonymous TikTok account. Use a throwaway email address and don’t link it to your phone.
- Block TikTok’s ability to track you outside of its app. On iOS and Android, say no when the app asks for permission to track you — or, even better, adjust the setting so no apps can do so. To further limit tracking, use an app such as Disconnect’s Do Not Track Kids, which blocks all trackers from reporting back to TikTok.
- Use TikTok without an account. You can still watch TikTok videos on the open Web, though you won’t be able to follow specific accounts or upload videos of your own.
Assume a defensive posture. Just like Facebook and other apps, TikTok’s main goals are to gobble up your data and keep you hooked — not help you get better informed.
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