Online, speed is everything – content must arrive fast, and it must be to-the-point. Though YouTube has long dominated the marketplace for lengthier video segments, many other platforms compete for your attention with shorter clips: Vine, Musica.ly, and now TikTok. However, as benign as these services may appear, the risks involved extend far past the time you might waste. TikTok’s extensive data collection has been a cause of alarm in many countries, and possibly soon in the US.
TikTok’s history begins with Musica.ly, a Chinese streaming platform specializing in short “lip-synch” style videos. These clips ranged between 15 seconds and 1 minute, featuring users typically mouthing or dancing to music. Users were also able to apply a variety of pre-existing effects and filters to enrich their content. To leverage the growing popularity of social networking, users were also able to “duet” with each other, allowing for rich video responses and collaboration.
If all this seems familiar, it’s because TikTok — then known as Douyin — acquired the service on November 9, 2017. Formerly exclusive to China, this brought TikTok from a domestic video platform into the global spotlight. Musica.ly’s prior popularity in the US allowed TikTok to further accelerate its takeoff, as Musica.ly profiles were automatically converted. As celebrities began using the app too, it was a perfect storm, enabling the app’s downloads to soar to its current billions.
The concern over TikTok’s data collection traces back to its origins in China. Internationally, multiple countries and individuals have levied criticism and lawsuits towards the app’s dubious data collection. For example, in 2019, the United States Federal Trade Commision fined the developers $5,700,000 over alleged COPPA violations — children’s data was being harvested and sent back to China, including not just app usage but personal information. Though TikTok claimed to address this with a new mode for kids, the FTC reopened a new investigation in July 2020. Also, across summer 2020, India outright banned the app, stating it was “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers outside India.”
Some might argue that the company is being subjected to undue scrutiny, perhaps because of ongoing hostility between the United States and China. However, though the data collected is not substantially worse than Facebook or Instagram, there is less accountability in how it is handled. Lawsuits have alleged that despite the developers’ claims, data collected is sent back to China and shared with mega corporations there. Additionally, multiple major security issues have cropped up across the app’s lifetime. However, without substantial evidence of wrongdoing, it is up to users to decide how much they are comfortable sharing overseas.
Bartz, D. (2020, July 7). Exclusive: U.S. probing allegations TikTok violated children’s privacy – sources. Retrieved from Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tiktok-privacy-children-exclusive-idUSKBN248373
Hamilton, I. A. (2020, July 10). Explainer: Should you delete TikTok. Retrieved from Business Insider: https://www.businessinsider.com/tiktok-explainer-privacy-facebook-google-2020-7
Lieber, C. (2019, February 28). TikTok has been illegally collecting children’s data. Retrieved from Vox: https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/2/28/18244996/tiktok-children-privacy-data-ftc-settlement
NARENDRA, M. (2019, December 4). #Privacy: TikTok found secretly transferring user data to China. Retrieved from PrivSec Report: https://gdpr.report/news/2019/12/04/privacy-tiktok-found-secretly-transferring-user-data-to-china/