Are You Safe & Protected On TikTok?

Siddhartha Dasgupta

August 29, 2020

You make short videos by lip syncing songs or impersonating popular actors and your audience loves them. The content is addictive, and you might as well become an influencer.

A social media influencer, more specifically a TikTok influencer. You have a potential audience of 1 Billion! That’s Billion with a B! There are only two consumer technology platforms in the world which can boast of 1 billion+ users! Facebook & TikTok.

TikTok was launched in 2016 and ever since the growth has been stupendous. The application has 800 million monthly active users. To put that number in perspective, that’s more than the population of the United States & European Union combined.

Everybody loves it, then what’s the problem?

When the app has 800 million monthly active users and having clocked an  astronomical growth rate in the last 4 years since launch, what could possibly be wrong? Leaving the geopolitics aside, why has TikTok been in the global news, in recent months? What’s the one concern that underscores everything that’s been going on with TikTok? The answer lies in data privacy and security.

When you look at the numbers and explore the action of advocating the public to delete the app, its not easy. In the US for example, TikTok has been downloaded 2 billion times! Its Gen Z’s favorite app by a long shot.

Hence, just advocating deletion will not work. While much has been highlighted about the amount of Data that TikTok collects, especially in online communities on Reddit. There’s no real credible evidence  to prove that TikTok collects any more user data than Facebook.

There have been enthusiasts on reddit, who have reverse engineered some of the data that TikTok collects and its not greatly different from what other apps such as Facebook collect.

Moreover, the company has categorically mentioned that they only store their data in US & Singapore, denying any data storage in China. This is particularly interesting considering that one of the major concerns surrounding TikTok is the storage of data in China and sharing its data with the Chinese government.

Privacy

As societies, we take extra care when it comes to protecting minors/children online. There are strict data privacy laws such as GDPR(Europe) and CCPA(California) which protect user data especially for minors on any online platform.

In fact, in the context of TikTok, a Dutch privacy firm, SOMI has claimed that TikTok hasn’t protected the privacy of children adequately which violates GDPR.

SOMI alleges that TikTok inadequately protects children who encounter adults who are strangers on the platform and bypasses parental consent/supervision which is mandated by GDPR.

We know that the app only allows users above 13 to create an account, but there have been instances of children below 13 creating accounts and bypassing the parental consent, because the app doesn’t have that additional functionality, which is a clear GDPR violation.

SOMI also steadfastly points out that TikTok has not taken organizational and technical measures to be GDPR compliant and is most likely transferring data outside the EU. UK has also stepped up its investigations into TikTok, in the context of protecting Children’s information and ensuring their safety on their platform.

In February 2020, ByteDance, which owns TikTok, was fined $5.7 million for collecting personal information of children below 13 by the US FTC(Federal Trade Commission).

In the United States, California has passed the historic CCPA into law. The California Consumer Protection Act(CCPA) aims to protect consumers’ privacy by giving them the right to delete, access and stop the data to be sold.

It aims to bring greater transparency for the benefit of consumers. The law also mandates platforms to give the consumer a easier way to voluntarily opt in for not allowing their data to be used for commercial purposes in the open market.

It means TikTok has to focus more first part data for its advertising rather then sending the consumer to two sites to manage their third-party targeted advertising.

Due to the CCPA, California residents are the only ones who can request TikTok for their personal data.

However, in the other states of US, there is no way a user can request their data from TikTok.

In an independent study conducted by Mashable, TikTok was graded F for data accessibility amid other popular online platforms such as Facebook and Google/YouTube.

Transparency 

Owing to increased pressure around privacy in the US, TikTok announced earlier this year that they will open a Transparency center in Los Angeles which will serve as a content moderation center to boost transparency.

The company hoped that this announcement will calm US lawmakers as they increasingly scrutinize TikTok on the aspect of sharing user data with the Chinese government.

Keeping in line with their newfound impetus to drive greater transparency from within, in the light of major allegations across the globe, TikTok has announced that they will voluntarily disclose algorithms, data flows and moderation practices to regulators.

They have also challenged competitors such as Facebook and Google/YouTube to be more open as well. Quoting from a recent blog post, Kevin Mayer, CEO, TikTok has said, “We believe our entire industry should be held to an exceptionally high standard”.

What the future holds for TikTok? 

The future growth story of TikTok is a rapidly evolving one, strongly influenced by geopolitics.

As the company navigates through tough scrutiny and courts/attracts potential new buyers in the form of Microsoft and Oracle, all stakeholders must realize that the future growth story of TikTok will be heavily influenced by a bipolar world that oscillates between US and China.

Above it all, at the center lie the users of TikTok whose data need to be protected and secured at all costs.

Source: The Hill, Computer Weekly, TikTok Newsroom, The Verge, Reuters, Washington Post, Mashable, The Guardian, Wallaroo Media

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About the author
Siddhartha Dasgupta

Contributing Author

Sid has been a content solutions evangelist and a digital marketer for 10+ years. Having written for brands such as IBM, Infosys and other technology corporations and startups, he is always at the cutting edge of researching & writing about emerging technologies.

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