More than 100 million Americans have downloaded a wildly popular app called TikTok to their smartphones, including two out of three teenagers. And it’s become a highly effective tool for businesses to connect with customers.
Tiktok’s one billion users are also watching content created by “ordinary” people like Kris Collins. A self-described recovering anorexic, Collins has nearly 48 million followers on the app and has earned nearly $5 million in 2021.
Another example is Matthew Merril. Only 18, TikTok has helped him build a thriving business. He posts what he refers to as “fun cooking videos” on his TikTok account.
Yet the success of TikTok, whose parent company, ByteDance, is based in China, has sparked deep concern among American lawmakers.
TikTok admits that it collects user information such as their IP address, the identity of their cellular company, their keystroke patterns, and their location data, among other information. That’s not much different than American social media giants, but concern over these practices was amplified in December, when ByteDance admitted that its employees had tracked location data of several US journalists. The tracking was apparently part of an effort by ByteDance to find the source of leaks inside the company revealing its ongoing links to China.
TikTok skyrocketed in popularity almost immediately after its US launch in 2016. But by 2019, lawmakers were sufficiently concerned about the app’s potential to steal and transmit user data to China that the government launched a national security review of the app.
In 2020, President Trump met with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to discuss concerns about TikTok. Zuckerberg characterized the competition between the two social media giants as essentially being freedom versus oppression. Trump promptly issued an order banning TikTok from US app stores.
In 2021, incoming President Joe Biden withdrew the order, after two federal courts ruled against it. But the controversy has continued, culminating in legislation proposed by Florida Senator Marco Rubio that would ban all apps “subject to substantial influence” by China, Russia, and other foreign adversaries.
The proposed law would require the president to use a law called the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to “block and prohibit all transactions” from social media platforms “domiciled in, headquartered in” or “organized under the laws of a country of concern.” Anyone convicted of violating this law may be punished with a 20-year prison term and a $1 million fine.
The proposed ban is arguably unconstitutional. And to put it mildly, censoring a social media app seems like an odd way to indicate disapproval of an adversary that itself routinely censors social media apps. But along with 19 states, the Department of Defense, the State Department, and the House of Representatives have already banned TikTok on government-issued smart devices. And the latest Congressional spending package bans the app on all federally-issued devices.
Absent a ban, there’s also a proposal in the works that would force ByteDance to sell its US operation to a consortium of domestic tech companies. Negotiations between ByteDance and the US government have been underway for more than two years with the aim of preventing data from American users ending up in the hands of the Chinese government.
So, what’s the fuss about? In our view, the underlying issue is that surveillance of social media users is perfectly fine when it’s conducted by US companies. But when a Chinese company does it, there’s a threat. Take the comments of Virginia Senator Mark Warner:
The Communist Party in China can … dictate to the parent company ByteDance [that] we’ll show this kind of content or that kind of content. And the proof of that is the TikToks that Chinese kids see which advances science and engineering versus the TikTok that our kids see is dramatically different.
Warner certainly has a point. The version of TikTok that Americans use isn’t available in China. Users there must use a different app that complies with Chinese government directives on censorship and propaganda.
What’s more, in 2021, The Wall Street Journal launched an investigation of TikTok using more than 100 TikTok accounts, including 31 accounts registered as users between ages 13 and 15. The accounts, which were mainly operated through artificial intelligence algorithms, were given keywords to search on and instructed to hover over specific images or links.
One supposedly 13-year-old user searched TikTok for “onlyfans,” referring to an online service used primarily by sex workers to produce pornography. In the app’s personalized “For You” feed, the user was programmed to pause scrolling on the most sexually explicit suggestions. Eventually, most of the suggested videos featured “whips, chains and torture devices.”
Another account purportedly used by another 13-year-old searched for videos about drug use and was rewarded with links to online sales of drugs and paraphernalia.
Yet this isn’t a bug—it’s a TikTok feature. A key innovation in its evolution came in 2012, when ByteDance introduced a feature in an earlier product called Jinri Toutiao (“Today’s Headlines”) that used artificial intelligence to “let every user, at every moment, see their own front news page.” It suggested future content based on how a user responded to specific images or links.
As well, TikTok has helped to popularize questionable trends that led to moral panics; from the Momo challenge hoax to the NyQuil chicken challenge. Meanwhile, social conservatives have had a field day reposting LGBT-related TikTok videos to provoke outrage. But we’ve seen no evidence anyone has died from eating NyQuil chicken or turned gay after viewing a TikTok video.
Moreover, engagement algorithms or the proliferation of hoaxes is hardly unique to TikTok. Nor is the data the app gathers on its users. Indeed, if TikTok is a security risk to the average American user, so are Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp, and Snapchat.
In this article from 2021, we described how US government agencies routinely bypass laws regulating surveillance by purchasing location data about cellphone users from private companies. They include the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, the IRS, and even the Air Force. Since the information is commercially available, no warrant is required for this type of surveillance. That means if Congress bans TikTok, the Chinese government can simply buy the data it wants to monitor US citizens with from any of many data aggregators that would be happy to sell it.
We’ve long maintained the only solution for the rampant privacy invasion the internet – and in particular, social media apps – facilitate is for every person to have an enforceable ownership right with respect to their own data. A less desirable solution would be to enact more robust data privacy laws and beef up enforcement of existing rules. Yet ever since the dawn of the internet age, Congress has refused to pass any meaningful legislation.
That neglect has led to where we are today, with our online behavior shaped and tracked by unaccountable algorithms and our data sold to the highest bidder. Banning TikTok won’t change any of this, no matter how many times Senators Rubio or Warner say it will.
How can you protect yourself? One simple, albeit draconian, solution is to throw away your smartphone. Replace it with a burner – a cheap mobile phone and prepaid voice and internet service purchased with cash. Follow this link to learn where to buy one or set one up.
If you don’t want to give up your smartphone, at least minimize the number of apps you download on it. Be especially wary of downloading social media apps like Facebook – or TikTok.
A good time to begin securing your online life would be today. Big Brother certainly isn’t going to do it for you.