Is TikTok Under Threat?
If you’re a TikTok user, chances are you’re less than thirty years old. There are exceptions to that rule, but TikTok is mostly an app and a platform upon which young people gather and exchange amusing videos. Their parents don’t understand it, and some of their older peers view it with suspicion, but it’s become the latest social media platform where people can make big money through advertising and become ‘influencers.’ Unfortunately for the people who now rely on TikTok as their primary source of income, it also might be disappearing in the not-too-distant future.
There have been murmurings that various national governments have been uneasy about TikTok’s access to data for a long time now, part of which is down to the fact that it’s a Chinese invention, and the United States of America and China are involved in a protracted trade war. As Huawei knows all-too-well, being suspected of espionage or being in the pocket of the Chinese government is likely to result in punitive sanctions from the USA, and when the USA bans something or restricts access to it, it tends to have knock-on effects in other parts of the world. TikTok is currently in the crosshairs of the Donald Trump administration, and there are signs that the President might be preparing to pull the trigger sooner rather than later.
Even if Trump doesn’t choose to ban TikTok, other entities might step in and make the continuing existence of the app outside of its home country difficult. Just a few days ago, Amazon sent an email out to all of its employees, advising them to delete TikTok from their mobile phones. In the memo, they said they were concerned that the app might have access to business email addresses, and that the data wasn’t being stored securely. The company was so concerned about the potential risk that it threatened to withdraw access to business email from anyone who still had TikTok installed after July 10th. Just as quickly as it had sent the memo, though, Amazon then went back on its word and claimed that the message had been ‘sent in error’ and that employees were permitted to continue using TikTok if they wished to do so.
Despite the wording of Amazon’s retraction, a company-wide memo doesn’t get written and sent by mistake. Someone senior at Amazon wanted to ensure that TikTok – or its parent company ByteDance, didn’t get access to potentially sensitive information. As much as ByteDance has repeatedly pointed out that the company’s CEO is an American, and there’s no connection between ByteDance and the Chinese government, it’s evident that several people in positions of authority aren’t convinced by their denials. Even the company’s recent decision to stop trading in Hong Kong in protest at the Chinese government’s actions there doesn’t appear to have done anything to assuage those concerns.
TikTok is just the latest of many apps, devices, and platforms to come under the spotlight of public scrutiny when it comes to hacking and data protection risks. Increasingly, it feels like logging into any app on your phone is no less risky than loading up a Blueprint slots. Just as a player has no idea what’s coming next after they’ve spun the reels of an online slots game, it appears that none of us have any idea where our data is going after we’ve input it onto our phones. The difference between the two examples is that when you play an online slots game, you know that you’re taking a gamble and facing an uncertain return. Facebook, Huawei, TikTok, Google, Apple, and all the other companies that have been accused of poor data protection or user monitoring conduct recently are supposed to be trustworthy.
Aside from the ban that Amazon imposed and then quickly retracted on TikTok, the app has already been banned for all employees working for the US State Department on the grounds that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo believes that it might be harvesting data, and cannot be trusted because the headquarters of ByteDance is in mainland China and therefore subject to the authority of the Chinese government. The recent revelation that there were vulnerabilities in both the latest version of iOS and the newest version of Android hasn’t helped matters, as Pompeo and several of his colleagues believe that these vulnerabilities could be exploited to allow TikTok greater access to the data held on a mobile device than they ought to enjoy. Pompeo is understood to be pushing for a US-wide ban on all social media apps created in or operated by China or Chinese companies, and President Trump could well be inclined to act on his advice.
India has already banned TikTok. The US military has banned TikTok. If the government follows, it will be a further escalation of a trade war that’s rumbled on for more than a year and shows no sign of going away any time soon. For millions of users and TikTok ‘personalities,’ though, it would be life-changing and, in some faces, financially devastating. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next, but our advice is that if you currently have a TikTok account and you enjoy using it, try not to get too attached to it. It may not be there for much longer.
We hope you enjoyed this post in collaboration with James Green.