TikTok, an app where users can create and share videos between three and fifteen seconds long, mainly involving lip-syncing, dancing, singing, and comedy routines, has recently come under fire. According to the social media management platform Hootsuite, Tiktok is the sixth largest social media network in the world, with 800 million active users worldwide in more than 150 different countries. Thousands of individuals who create content on the app utilize it to earn full time incomes via brand endorsements. For example, India’s top TikTok influencer Riyaz Ali has over 40 million followers as of July. Businesses around the world are using this platform to target Generation Z consumers, given that 13-24 year-olds represent up to 69 percent of TikTok’s user base. In response to COVID-19, The World Health Organization has been posting shareable videos on TikTok to bust myths surrounding COVID-19.
Given its undeniable popularity, TikTok has had its fair share of cybersecurity issues. In December of 2019, it was found that the app had multiple security vulnerabilities that could allow hackers to manipulate or control content, as well as reveal personal information about the users. These flaws have since been fixed. In addition to these concerns authorities have also questioned TikTok’s content regulation. US lawmakers have accused the app of censoring content that is against the Chinese government, such as political speech. This concern resulted in the US conducting a national security review of TikTok’s corporate activities in November 2019. As both TikTok and WeChat are owned by the Chinese technology companies ByteDance and Tencent, other Chinese apps have also been subject to attention from researchers. Recently, The Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto reported that WeChat scans images and documents shared by users both inside and outside of China. US and Indian lawmakers, in addition to others, have raised concerns that they could use to aid in surveillance, espionage or intellectual property theft.
Due to these concerns, the Indian government made the quick decision to ban TikTok as well as other apps. US-based applications are not immune to scrutiny and scandal. In early 2018, Facebook was under scrutiny for a data leak, in which millions of Facebook users’ personal data was harvested without consent by Cambridge Analytica, and then primarily used in political advertising. This was the largest known leak in Facebook history. In addition, Twitter was faced with a scam that compromised 130 high-profile Twitter accounts as they were used by outside parties to promote a bitcoin scam. The perpetrators had gained access to Twitter’s administrative tools and then altered the accounts to have the ability to post tweets from them directly.
As the US is involved in a trade war with China, the country has been calling on allies to ban Chinese technology companies from their telecom infrastructure and from outsourcing the building or their 5G networks. As of 2019, US military personnel and staff of some government agencies have already been prohibited from using TikTok.
In July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that Americans should only use TikTok “if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.” The Democratic National Committee has also previously issued warnings to campaign staff not to use TikTok on their work phones, given how much data is gathered. After the Trump administration began turning up the heat on TikTok, Microsoft has confirmed it is among a handful of companies in early talks to acquire the short-clip video service. Currently, using his emergency economic powers to impose broad sanctions against TikTok, Trump has now given ByteDance and Microsoft until September 15th to reach a deal in the purchase of TikTok. As a $1.5 trillion dollar company, Microsoft has focused its business mostly on corporate clients by selling software and cloud computing services, yet buying TikTok would be its first major interaction into a social media platform popular amongst new users. Officials at Microsoft have said that it is examining a TikTok acquisition that would potentially buy TikTok’s American, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand services, but officials close to the deal say that the final offer may include operations in even more countries.
TikTok has made several moves to promote the idea that the app has been fire-walled off from ByteDance, and does not share user data with the Chinese government. Although, as the regulatory pressure is piling up, The Federal Trade Commission is reportedly investigating whether or not the company violated a 2019 consent decree meant to protect children’s privacy. In a statement, TikTok says it is “shocked” by the executive order, claiming that the Trump administration “paid no attention to facts, dictated terms of an agreement without going through standard legal processes, and tried to insert itself into negotiations between private businesses.”
In addition to its popularity, it is also clear that the company’s success has made it a target. Despite political backlash and concerns for data privacy and international security, TikTok has proven its cultural dominance and is continuing to rise. Kids are spending 80 minutes a day using the app, and entire neighborhoods in Los Angeles are being taken over by “collab houses” designated to create fresh content for the app.