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Let’s run through what this means for you.
TL;DR: If you like scrolling TikTok, you don’t need to do anything different now. Read on, though, for instructions on four savvy steps to secure your privacy on TikTok no matter what happens with the app.
If you have a large following on TikTok or use the app to pitch your business, you might want a backup plan. (I'll get into details in a minute.) Be prepared, just in case TikTok goes away in the United States.
Wait, what’s happening with TikTok?
(Deep breath.) Government officials in the United States and some other countries have said for a long time that TikTok is a risk to you and national security.
The fear is that TikTok, which is owned by Chinese internet giant ByteDance, could be a gateway for the Chinese Communist Party to harvest information on Americans, spread pro-China propaganda or drown us in internet garbage that rots our brains. TikTok has said those concerns are bogus.
There has been a stalemate over this for years. Nearly all American politicians say that TikTok is a danger. But they also haven’t done much about it.
U.S. elected officials have mostly fired off mean tweets and passed largely symbolic “bans” on Americans using TikTok on phones or WiFi networks affiliated with public institutions, including some state universities.
But now something substantive could change
The Biden administration wants to force TikTok's Chinese owners to sell their investment in the app or face a potential national ban.
This could lead to TikTok’s operation in the United States being sold to an American company. (That’s what the Trump administration tried to do in 2020. Drama ensued. There was no sale.)
If the Biden administration moves forward, there’s a strong likelihood that the Chinese government will say heck no to the U.S. ordering ByteDance to sell TikTok.
It’s not clear what would happen then. Maybe TikTok sues over this and nothing changes again. My colleagues wrote about the legal challenges for the U.S. government. Or maybe the saga ends with the United States essentially kicking TikTok out of the country.
What you should do if you use TikTok
Ignore breathless people on TikTok who might be saying the app is going away. No. Your TikTok will work normally for the foreseeable future.
No matter who owns the company in the future, though, this is a moment to think about your TikTok risk tolerance.
That is both because of its ownership in China and the reality that TikTok collects a lot of information from you — as do many apps owned by American companies.
Read my colleague Geoffrey A. Fowler’s recent column on how to think about your potential personal risk from using the app. For most people, a largely theoretical concern about Chinese spying or manipulation through TikTok may not feel relevant. Americans have voted with their thumbs by using TikTok a ton.
It’s still worth turning off TikTok’s ability to access your smartphone contacts or link with your Facebook account. Heather Kelly has instructions on the TikTok settings to change right now. (And I have detailed steps below, too.)
Personally, I have TikTok’s app only on a phone that I use infrequently. This might be overkill, but TikTok recently acknowledged that ByteDance workers used the app to spy on journalists and their contacts.
You can also request a digital file with your TikTok data, including your list of followers that could be handy if you move to another app.
If you’ve seen TikTok videos suggesting using a VPN to access the app — don’t do that. These technologies to disguise your online activity aren’t helpful for most people. (Read more from Geoff about VPNs.)
If you have a large following on TikTok, you might want to consider what you might do if the app is banned in America. Again, this probably won’t happen but it’s not impossible.
When India’s government banned TikTok and other Chinese apps beginning in 2020, most Indians who used TikTok moved elsewhere, largely to Instagram and YouTube, the news outlet Rest of World reported. But Indians who were popular on TikTok found it hard to recover when the app disappeared from the country.
You’re at the whims of a geopolitical fight and America’s privacy failures
You’re in the middle of mistrust between governments of the United States and China and there’s not much you can do about it. TikTok users are also hurt by America’s failures to stop an arms race for your personal information.
There are almost no national laws in the United States to prevent other people, companies or governments — our own government or China’s — from buying or using information harvested from our phones. That risk doesn’t disappear if TikTok is sold to an American company.
Let me give you an example of how a change in ownership didn’t fix a privacy risk.
In 2019, the U.S. government ordered the Chinese owner of the gay dating app Grindr to sell its investment. American officials worried that in the hands of a Chinese company, data from the app could be abused by the Chinese Communist Party to blackmail Americans, particularly government officials or defense contractors.
My colleagues recently reported that data from Grindr was, in fact, used against Americans. But it wasn’t China at work. It was a group of American Catholics who wanted to oust priests they believed were breaking sacred vows. The group bought the data on the open market.
One tiny win
Here are four privacy measures to consider taking with TikTok. Again, these are worthy of your consideration no matter which company owns the app.
- Do not give TikTok access to your contacts. 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. TikTok will ask you to share access to your contacts over and over again. This is terrible behavior by TikTok.
- 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. 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 watch TikTok videos on the web without having the app or a TikTok account. You won’t be able to follow accounts or upload your own videos.
Read more from Geoff: Separating facts from fears about TikTok and China.
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