TikTok has dominated Australian headlines over the past few weeks after an unnamed federal politician made allegations linking the popular app to the Chinese government.
In the days that followed, the discussion about what data TikTok collects and who can access it was reignited with other politicians, including Australia’s own prime minister, who questioned how it worked.
TikTok Australia denied all allegations, stating the claims were baseless and that it uses servers in Singapore to store user data, not in China.
Despite the dispute, the allegations that TikTok is data-mining for the Chinese government are certainly persistent. But what do makers of the app actually have on their users?
TikTok collects data, but it’s exactly what you’d expect
On sign up, TikTok doesn’t appear to be the nefarious spying app Australian and international politicians will have you believe. Instead, it’s something we’re more likely to all be familiar with.
Dr Nik Thompson, a cybersecurity expert at Curtin University, said the data can be split into two categories — background data and user-generated information.
There are the permissions you willingly hand over in order to use the app, including location services, access to contacts and your camera and microphone. This is called background data.
Then there’s user-generated data, such as what you enter into an account, how you interact with the app as well as the content you upload.
But if you don’t want to sign up for an account, TikTok will still let you browse the service’s main feed without one. Despite appearing so, Dr Thompson said it’s not actually an anonymous method of using the app.
“Browsing the service anonymously just means you haven’t created a username on there but the same terms and conditions still apply when you use the app,” Dr Thompson said.
“If they’ve said that we were going to collect, for example, location data or your IP address or network information then they can still do that.”
The data, however, isn’t likely going to be used to identify a single individual user. While it’s identifiable to a person, it’s much more likely to be used to compile profiles of larger groups who use the app — known as big data — just like many other social media sites do.
“The risk that we face with social platforms like TikTok isn’t necessarily an individual risk,” Dr Thompson said.
Concerns about TikTok are as valid as concerns about other social media sites
Recent history has shown us big data can be used to tailor the algorithm that feeds us videos of interest but it can also be used for darker things, like influencing a political election.
One of the biggest reports in recent years and one still occupying Australia’s own court system is Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The scandal’s breadth was brought to light when The Guardian and the New York Times revealed a whistleblower’s account of the data breach. Thousands of Facebook users willingly answered a survey, which they were paid for, conducted by Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm.
Facebook allowed the firm to take both the personal information of the respondents, as well as access their friends’ information, without their consent, leading to the data mining of millions of accounts. This information was then allegedly used to target voters for political advertising across the U.S. and U.K. elections.
The social media giant was heavily criticised for the oversight and has appeared before courts around the world, including Australia’s, for breaches of privacy.
TikTok has no Cambridge Analytica scandal to its name, so calls to ban it remain baseless for now. Still, the data privacy concerns being raised remain valid given the amount of data social media sites, TikTok included, hold.
“If we think that Cambridge Analytica was bad, well, that was caused by Facebook essentially being careless, rather than being complicit,” Dr Thompson said.
“If we are being cautious then think about what might happen if a social media platform was actually complicit and was actively trying to influence people or manipulate, you know, people’s beliefs or views.”
The Chinese government’s laws provide a mechanism to allow it to ask or compel TikTok, a Chinese subsidiary, to hand over data. As far as the world’s aware, this hasn’t happened yet, but it’s a part of the reason the discussion is happening.
Of course, the important distinction is that there’s still no evidence to suggest that’s actually occurring. TikTok has taken steps to remove itself from the reach of those laws, but with ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, being headquartered in Beijing, it can be tough to say whether that distance is really enough.
“The data [TikTok]’s collecting isn’t any more intrusive [than other sites],” Dr Thompson said.
“[But] when a foreign power might be able to build a profile of millions of people, or a whole city, that’s a risk.”
Can you use TikTok safely?
With some calls for the app to be banned despite no hard evidence of foreign interference, there is a question of whether any of the risks can be mitigated.
Turns out, they can.
“One of the things that you could do to be a bit safer is turn off location services — the app works fine without them,” Dr Thompson said.
“If it asked for access to the camera roll, for example, well, if you want to actually actively use the app, it’s a media sharing app and you have to give it access to things like the camera.”
If you’re just lurking for a bit of coronavirus-reprieve and don’t intend to upload your own viral dances, you can just turn off the permissions or grant them for one-off occasions. The app still works perfectly fine with them all switched off.
Banning an app as popular as TikTok is unlikely to ameliorate the situation for many of its younger users. There will always be ways around a ban. Instead, educating younger people to make more informed decisions on what they upload might be the key.
“I think it’s about being more … calculating and thinking, ‘Once I click ‘send’ on this, there’s no ‘unsend’, there’s no delete’,” Dr Thompson said.
“You should assume that if something is posted on social media then it’s out of your hands.”