TikTok on the sly

TikTok is so fun and also a little problematic. TikTok is going through a puberty like phase where governments are acting like controlling parents and TikTok is a confused, sly, emotional teenager trying to get along but evidently failing.TikTok is also facing an America wide ban and all American government officials were told in December 2022 to dismantle the TikTok app from their devices. Why are federal government offices and other institutions, like universities, starting to shiver in fear on TikTok and ban its use on staff phones? Let’s go back a bit and have a look at the privacy policy on TikTok’s website. 

The first section of TikTok’s privacy policy is not trying to hide anything about it being a data mining exercise, ‘technical and behavioural information about your use of the Platform’ will be collected, regardless of whether you are creating content for the platform or have simply downloaded the app for voyeuristic purposes. 

TikTok are also laying it all on the table about who they share their collected data with, basically, anyone that will buy it, as written like this, ‘We share your data with third party service providers who help us to deliver the Platform, such as cloud storage providers. We also share your information with business partners, other companies in the same group as TikTok, content moderation services, measurement providers, advertisers, and analytics providers.’ 

There is a TikTok in-app browser on the iOS TikTok app. What does that mean? It means that when you open a website through the TikTok app, it can record your keystrokes and other input activity and modify content accordingly. That means suggested content and advertising/marketing content is based on your algorithm. Other social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook have their own browsers and are also collecting personal data to share with third parties. 

The Hard Fork podcast, hosted by Kevin Roose (Rabbit Hole, NYT tech journo) and Casey Newton explained in a recent episode why governments around the world are sceptical of TikTok’s ownership and agenda. It has everything to do with TikTok being owned by ByteDance, a Chinese owned private business. The suspicion comes from an authoritarian government imposing rules and requesting information that is potentially a security threat to other countries if…IF TikTok is being used as a surveillance and/or a propaganda tool by the Chinese government. TikTok has been trying to distance itself from the parent company, ByteDance and is trying to avoid further scrutiny and so set up a headquarters in Los Angeles in 2020. The opening was heavily delayed due to Covid-19. They named this office the Transparent & Accountability Centre and it is for journalists, academics, regulators and auditors to view source code, to see how content moderation works and dispel any misgivings about how data is being collected and disseminated. In early Feb, The Verge’s Alex Heath toured the TikTok Transparency Centre and felt that maybe it was more an exercise in virtue signalling. Look over here, it’s everything you need to know about us. He said it was vague and not unlike Facebook’s War Room that was set up when FB was accused of election interference. The Facebook War Room was quickly dismantled following the PR tours of the space. 

Which brings us to Project Texas, the next instalment of TikTok playing the game to remain a force in digital technology on American soil. TikTok have built a data centre that will syphon American data to a local data bank that will be run by Oracle and has already had a $1.5b investment. An outright ban on American devices has been flagged by Joe Biden, that follows the protective ban on government officials which they say is to avoid Chinese interference and surveillance. The BBC reported on this and the Chinese government says, “the American government is stretching the definition of national security and…unreasonably suppressing the companies of other countries”. 

However, the national security risks, that were originally flagged in the Trump Administration in 2019, that have led to the negotiations between ByteDance and the US government are very clear and were outlined in the Lawfare blog as follows:

  • Unauthorized access to data. The government has been concerned that China could obtain data held by TikTok—specifically, data on U.S. citizens. 
  • State influence over content. The government has been concerned that the Chinese government could influence the content that TikTok makes available to its users, or that TikTok could unilaterally decide to prioritize content that would threaten or destabilize the United States.
  • Untrustworthy software and systems. The government has been concerned that TikTok does not maintain appropriate security systems to prevent unauthorized access to TikTok’s product and data through intentional or unintentional vulnerabilities.

It is clear that Beijing has taken control of Chinese big tech companies in the past, the Chinese government is the boss despite citizen ownership and it is demanding, unpredictable and lacking transparency. No wonder countries that want to appear to value citizen privacy and protect national security are dubious of company relations with China. 

All we want is to learn how to [insert challenge here] from a fellow human being. Did someone say ‘shuffle’ or ‘try this…’?