UPDATE: Donald Trump never said he was going to ban TikTok. Media misquoted.
UPDATE: Microsoft is in talks to purchase TikTok and the apps General Manager in the US says, “We’re not going anywhere.”
TikTok – the viral video app has been under intense scrutiny from tech and political insiders who accuse the app of accessing massive amounts of your data and sending it to the Communist Chinese government.
But it’s not just in the US…
India, the worlds second most populous country has banned TikTok citing their own national sovereignty and corporate giants Wells Fargo and Amazon have told their employees to remove the app from their company phones.
It seems that with such high profile organizations jumping on the ban TikTok bandwagon, it might be reasonable to assume the app is dangerous, delete it and hide in a closet, right?
Maybe, but we’ve seen this all before.
Just a few months ago the media went WILD over Faceapp and how is was really a Chinese spy tool that must be deleted from your phones immediately! KUSI interviewed me on the San Diego news to discuss that crisis and the science behind it.
Today, FaceApp is still in the App Store with with 983,000 reviews totaling 4.75 stars and nary a newsman is complaining.
So should we ban TikTok? Is the intensely fun, video sharing app is really a Chinese doomsday device or is the media just blowing smoke to keep their ratings up?
The answer is… both kinda.
There is reason to be concerned about TikTok’s data gathering
Because mobile apps like TikTok are extremely techy and the specific factors motivating the ban TikTok movement are somewhat emotional (China’s name is closely attached), I’ve distilled the main arguments into a easy-to-understand summary that can help us unpack it:
First, TikTok is owned by a Chinese corporation ByteDance which is the highest valued privately held company in the world. The company is headquartered in Los Angeles where former Disney executive Kevin Mayer is the CEO. All TikTok data is stored on US servers.
Like all apps installed on your phone, TikTok has access to massive amounts of your data but the major security question around banning TikTok is clipboard scraping. When you copy and paste text or images on your phone TikTok can see what you copied. Not all apps do this and is mostly harmless as the info copied is usually docile but can get pretty scary if you’re copying and pasting login credentials or sensitive information.
That being said…
At least 53 other apps in the Apple App Store do the exact same thing.
This includes news media apps, social media, and gaming apps like ABC News, Al Jazeera, BeJeweled, Hotels.com, and Bed Bath & Beyond.
So why is TikTok being singled out as so especially dangerous that countries and major corporations are banning it?
It’s mostly Fake News.
Consider that the app stores (Google & Apple) built their framework to allow these apps to scrape your data. Similarly, they could solve any security issues they disagree with in one second by simply prohibiting apps to collect data in this way.
Similarly, there have been no victims or any accusations of crimes committed with the information from clipboard scraping from TikTok or any of these other apps.
Most TikTok bans are related to political conflicts with China.
India, for example, shares a border with China and banned TikTok along with a series of other Chinese-based apps in tandem with increased military action on that border.
In the US, the military decided to ban TikTok from military issued phones based on a pending investigation into the app. The military does allow other clipboard scraping apps.
And remember how Amazon sent emails to their employees asking them to remove the app? Well, they actually sent the wrong email.
TikTok has repeatedly distanced itself from it’s Chinese roots and has emphatically stated that the video app is no threat to national security.
As recently as June 2020 TikTok agreed to stop the practice of clipboard scraping (although as of July 2020 that has not been accomplished). Reddit (another app) has also made plans to stop the practice.
That’s why I believe that TikTok should not be feared as a dangerous spying app from China, but as a fun new video app that connects people and encourages creativity.
TikTok will not be banned in the US
TikTok is not doing anything that other apps aren’t already doing and Apple & Google designed the framework that allows for it. Politicians and talking heads that decry the app are uninformed at best or intentionally inflammatory at worst.
If we ban TikTok for clipboard scraping, we could see a domino effect of other apps in the marketplace who are also scraping (and possibly a whole slew of others who aren’t but could). This means many of you would lose some of your favorite apps.
The fact is, as mobile apps become smarter they will serve us in new and exciting ways that will require more of your data to work properly. Every person is going to have to make the decision whether or not they want a particular app to have that information and app stores like Apple & Google should place US national security and personal privacy as top concerns so consumers are better informed.
They should also be held responsible for nefarious activity done by apps on their networks.