TikTok Data Privacy Concern has been one of the hottest topics that has remained in trending for the last couple of years. The immensely popular Chinese app which became an instant hit with the millennials at its very debut and continues to be a favorite among the gen Z, has a riddle to solve — the constant brushing of shoulders with data privacy concerns and data security threats.
Today, we are living in the age of social media, which goes on to construct a considerable (if not the better) part of our respective identities. It’s the new normal. And in this regard, TikTok plays quite a key role. Owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, TikTok, and its Chinese counterpart Douyin, is a short-form video hosting service, which has been in operation since September, 2016.
Widely celebrated for hosting user-submitted videos, which can range in duration from 3 seconds to 10 minutes, both TikTok and Douyin have millions of dedicated followers, spread across the globe. For the uninitiated, it had a predecessor in the form of ‘musical.ly’. Having built on an array of programming languages like Python, Java, C and Swift, TikTok enjoys a huge support base that mostly comprises a young audience along with people who are young at heart.
After having an initial stellar run, TikTok’s growth has been halted time and again, due to widespread concerns over its approach to data privacy and data security. In 2023, as we approach the end of the first quarter, it still remains one of the most significant brands out there, having the tag of a mainstay in the social media framework, globally.
But, there is a but, which actually leads to many buts and brings in a lot of ifs in the equation. And it all starts with the ‘TikTok Data Security Threat’, something which can’t be brushed aside even after the Chinese company, which is now a global enterprise, opted for leaving no stone unturned.
Let’s delve deeper with the story, as the top-brass of the Bytedance-owned popular social media platform continues to search for new ways to hide the demon, which has started to rise by leaps and bounds, lately. Also, find out if as a TikTok user you have reasons to worry about.
Therefore, without much ado, let’s get started. Add whatever filter you wish but don’t forget to watch the entire ‘reel’, as you can’t afford to miss out on the important details with intricate nuances, which have something seriously to do with your own data.
You Never Know Who Spilled the Beans
We had a topsy-turvy start to the year so far; at least in terms of data privacy, data security and cybersecurity concerns. In fact, the year that just went by, was no cakewalk either. Last year, we were shell-shocked by the Deribit hot-wallet hack, which not only wiped out $28M investor wealth, but also sledgehammered the global crypto market, which was on its way to make a slow recovery after its unprecedented collapse.
Last year itself, global cybersecurity giant Kaspersky Labs published a well-researched report that made alarming claims — more than 90% of the businesses around the world lack a cybersecurity system to protect themselves against a potential cyberattack.
This year, the shocking revelation of the GoDaddy hack happened, with the news of accounts and credentials of innumerable accounts getting compromised over a span of three years, coming to the general consciousness. In the wake of phishing and scamming incidents rising like nothing, calls for an extra cushion of caution is at an all-time high. From crypto insurances to stringent cybersecurity protection and other necessary tools — people can’t help but resort to new ways of protecting their data, which eventually leads them to potential disasters.
Now, the point is, you never get to know what went wrong, in most of the cases of phishing, scamming and hacking. That’s why users are becoming extra cautious these days, especially, in the light of these high-profile incidents. The behavioral change on the part of the users, can be traced around the world. And it goes without saying that in such a scenario, the constant accusations of data breaches, data mining and allied allegations, don’t at all help TikTok.
Influencer, Thy Name Is TikTok
These days, ‘influencer’ happens to be one of the most sought-after tags on social media. It is perceived as one of the integral factors for ground-breaking marketing, too. And when it comes to TikTok, it can surely flaunt itself as one of the key influencers out there, despite its fair share of controversies.
See, today, by and large reels have become the most growing segment across the social media apps. Both in terms of popularity and as an easy tool to fetch money, reels have scaled great heights in recent times. Something which was once limited to the peripheries of this Chinese social media platform, has now managed to make serious inroads into the leading apps of our time.
Now, reels feature on Facebook and Instagram. On the other hand, YouTube has also introduced a new feature recently, called YouTube Shorts, which is almost like reels. And WhatsApp has also come up with a new update, which allows its users to share short videos on their WhatsApp status. In a nutshell, TikTok has almost revolutionized the whole gamut of social media apps and their features, by its reels, let alone other aspects.
Pretty recently, we discovered that Spotify’s new UI has been largely inspired by Meta-owned Instagram’s interface and has taken serious inspirations from Bytedance-owned TikTok as well. This development also speaks volumes about TikTok’s brand positioning in the virtual space. Hence, we are left with any doubt, so far as TikTok’s role as an influencer is concerned, as even its close competitors end up following suit, incorporating elements from it that pay high dividends.
TikTok Data Privacy Concern Seems to Be the Achilees’ Heel
TikTok is one of the most valuable brands at the moment, having an estimated total valuation of $66 billion. It has over a billion users across the entire planet, with the current availability in almost 150 countries. In the United States alone, more than 210 million downloads have been accomplished, till date.
But despite such staggering numbers, the TikTok warship can’t sit back and relax, as it has a major chink in the armour. And it’s something which can’t be diluted any more in 2023, neither diminished. The growing concerns over its alleged data mining activities, all across the world, have raised a few eyebrows if not raised the alarm bells at the Bytedance headquarters, the Chinese company which ons TikTok.
If the brand manages to successfully deal with this ongoing crisis, then only it can expand its business. Otherwise, it might not even continue to sustain it, at least going by the present scenario. It’s really a hard nut to crack for the Chinese app.
Especially, the rising tensions between the US and China (for the uninitiated, the Taiwan crisis seems to be deepening, day by day and can trigger the next level of serious political tensions between the two powerhouses, which will surely have strong economic repercussions) have worsened its case. The US as well as the European nations (considering the rising tensions between the European countries and Russia, with the latter’s close allegiance towards China) can’t afford to allow any sort of vulnerability of their users’ data, not at this stage of the hour.
We have seen how the predictions of wars being shifted to cyberspace, have started turning true in this decade. Therefore, from their perspective, any app with so many connections to alleged data breach and data mining is likely to face a ban. For the uninitiated, TikTok is already serving an indefinite ban in India, one of the most booming tech markets in the world and a ban in the US is on the cards, after a close shave, years back. To add to the woes, it’s on the verge of a ban in many of the European states too.
Controversies Go Away, Only to Come Back Stronger — Over and over Again
Last year, in the month of August, Felix Krause, a privacy researcher and former Google engineer, went on to discover through extensive research that the TikTok web browser comprises built-in functionality to track users’ online habits. Krauss revealed that while conducting the research on Apple’s iOS operating system, he was extremely shocked to notice that there’s a hidden keystroke tracking within the in-app browser.
This shocking incident made TikTok monitoring resurface again, instigating fears of user data being used for malicious activities, including things related to national security. The fact that the TikTok app moves you to the TikTok web browser, with the alleged character/keystrokes tracking, was highlighted by Krause as the elephant in the room.
Renowned independent software engineer and security researcher, Jane Manchun Wong also echoed her concerns regarding the grave implications of this TikTok monitoring, “Based on Krause’s findings, the way TikTok’s custom in-app browser monitors keystrokes is problematic, as the user might enter their sensitive data such as login credentials on external websites.” She also went on to shed light on another dangerous aspect of this TikTok monitoring, the ability to extract information from the external browsing sessions of a particular user.
This certainly didn’t go down well with users as well as national policy makers in the US and in Europe. However, TikTok brushed aside all these claims by terming them “incorrect and misleading.” The Chinese app also clarified that the alleged feature is used for “debugging, troubleshooting and performance monitoring” and contrary to Krause’s claims, they do not collect keystroke or text inputs through the concerned code.
Recent Attempts to Restore Parity
TikTok opted for a data privacy settlement in October last year, which cost the company close to $27.84 to $162 per user, with most of them hailing from the US. For those who are not well aware of how things unfolded in the first place, in February, 2021, a US district court in Illinois forced TikTok’s parent organization ByteDance to come to terms with a hefty $92 million class-action settlement after numerous cases were filed against it on data privacy grounds. And in July, 2022, a federal judge named John Lee, sanctioned the $92 million worth TikTok data privacy settlement.
Without much ado, TikTok resorted to full payout, in order to paint the brand image in positive colors. Apart from this, the popular social media app introduced a new TikTok monetization tool named Creativity Program Beta in recent times, to lure content creators. Designed to help creators earn more money with longer content, Creativity Program Beta instilled a renewed interest in the app.
The company also kept on marketing around TikTok ads, which is projected as a great tool for brands and businesses to make dividends. For your information, 59% of the popular social media platform is attributed to users from the Millenial, GenX, and even Baby Boomer generations — which makes TikTok ads a serious contender on the digital marketing scene.
However, despite so many well-thought moves, the Shou Zi Chew-spearheaded company could hardly hush up the allegations of data breach and data mining in thin air and they continue to cause serious trouble in its overall progress.
Hue and Cry from All Corners
Today, it’s a make or break situation for TikTok. Its CEO Shou Zi Chew was questioned in the U.S. Congress last week, amidst growing fears of a complete ban in the nation. In recent developments, EU institutions have banned their staff from having TikTok on their work phones, only last month. The Irish Data Protection Commission, which happens to be TikTok’s lead privacy regulator in the EU, is set to decide over the next few months if the company has unlawfully transferred European users’ data to China.
However, TikTok has activated its SOS plans as its future seems hanging in balance. One of them is the $1.5 billion ‘Project Texas’ for the US and the other is the €1.2 billion ‘Project Clover’ for the European users. Both of these plans are meant to safeguard users’ data in these two regions.
But TikTok’s chief European lobbyist Theo Bertram stated this month that it would be “practically extremely difficult” to totally stop European data from going to China, something which is not going to help TikTok’s cause.
What’s the Next Reel?
TikTok has been told by the Biden administration that either its Chinese owners divest their stakes or it shuts shop in the US. Amidst threats of the company being linked to the Chinese government and the mass data collection being used by Chinese agencies, TikTok is clearly caught in a maze.
Let’s see if Shou Zi Chew manages to pull TikTok off from this unprecedented crisis, as unsatisfactory results in the findings of the U.S. Congress may just result in a complete ban. And as it stands one wrong move may end up TikTok losing the plot, as one fall will just lead to another (a ban in the US will definitely influence a ban by the EU, going by the international eco-political equations at the moment). Hence, the next reel must go viral for TikTok, otherwise it may be the beginning of the end.