The Deal with TikTok

TikTok is a social network featuring short music videos edited and uploaded by users. It’s estimated to have 800 million active users and close to 2 billion downloads between the Apple AppStore and the Google Play Store. Most Tik Tok users are young—69% are between the ages of 13 and 24.


Recently, TikTok has been in the spotlight, and it’s not for a viral dance video. Recent research indicates TikTok is a conduit for massive data harvesting. Just months ago, a Reddit user posted that he had reversed engineered the TikTok app and found that it had collected a treasure trove of data on its users, from IP addresses and device hardware information to other apps you’ve installed (and maybe even deleted). He claimed that if there was an accessible way (via an Application Programming Interface—API) to collect data from your device, TikTok makes use of it. Interestingly enough, TikTok’s U.S. Privacy Policy pretty much confirms this. Its categories for automatic information collection include: usage information, device information, location data, messages, metadata, and cookies. It’s also clear that they’re sharing the information with their “service providers and business partners” and that they collect information about you from any linked social media, third-party services like advertising partners, and other publicly available sources. Oof.

So why such concern? TikTok is owned by a Chinese company. There is concern about the Chinese government having access to so much personal data. Fallout from the research included India banning the app altogether. And the U.S. is considering a ban as well, citing national security concerns that the Chinese government could be spying on and influencing millions of Americans through the app.

Should You Delete It?

When considering whether or not to keep the app, we encourage you to weigh the value the app delivers. TikTok may bring you enjoyment and social connection, but at what expense? Are the permissions too broad? Does this app ask for too much personal information? Is the company behind the app using your data in a way that makes you uncomfortable?

Perhaps it doesn’t bother you to share the model of your phone, where you live and travel, the videos you view and comments you make. But, combine that with data on websites you visit (outside of the app), your contacts, public information, your other social network profiles, and it becomes clear that it’s possible to build a substantial psychological profile on you.

If this sounds familiar it’s because a similar situation played out in 2016 with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Users shared information via a paid “survey” with a third-party app on Facebook. That data (and more!) ended up in the hands of Cambridge Analytica, who went on to use the data to build software designed to deliver political messaging and influence election choices. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica faced scrutiny from our government and the U.K. government.

Most people don’t take the time to read an app’s privacy policy, especially when “everyone” is already using it. But, now that information has come to light that puts the collection and questionable use of your data front and center, it’s time to re-evaluate whether the app is really worth it.

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