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Is TikTok on the Clock? Why is the U.S. Concerned?

Concerned about TikTok’s connection with the Chinese government and its surveillance potential, the Biden administration may issue a nationwide ban for the app if the business does not sell itself to an American-based company, reminiscent of similar efforts made in 2020 by former-president Donald Trump.

The issue revolves around two points.

First, TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, operates in China, where national security laws require companies under their jurisdiction to cooperate with a broad range of security activities. Second is user data, both in what is recorded and what the Chinese government may be able access.

However, TikTok’s CEO Shou Chew says the latter is not a concern.

“The Chinese government has actually never asked us for U.S. user data,” Chew said, “And we’ve said this on record (during our previous legal battle with the Trump administration), even if we were asked for that, we will not provide it. […] Also, all U.S. user data is stored, by default, in the Oracle Cloud infrastructure and access to that data is completely controlled by U.S. personnel.”

Dr. David Lowry, a professor of communication at Oklahoma Christian University, uses TikTok often and said even if China can see his data, he’s not worried if they find out he watches cat videos.

“I think the federal government is kind of creeped out by the fact that the Chinese government can know a lot about individual citizens and what they do, what their habits are and that that could be used in a way that’s not good. But for heaven’s sake, it’s being done already,” Lowry said.

Lowry talked about Facebook selling data during the previous presidential election and how his iPhone tracks his location and habits enough to tell him how long until he would typically head home, know when he gets in his car and even suggest directions to a restaurant at the time of day and week he usually visits it.

If an iPhone can detect that much, how much information do the apps on it collect?

According to a CNBC article covering a 2022 study of how 10 different iOS apps (YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, Telegram, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Messenger and WhatsApp) track user data, YouTube and TikTok were the most questionable.

The study found the average number of domains tracking user activity was six, but both YouTube and TikTok had 14 network contacts. Ten of YouTube’s were first-party networks, four were third-party, but for TikTok, 13 were third party. The third parties for both platforms continue to track user data even when the user does not allow tracking in either app’s settings.

TikTok said when they conducted a similar test themselves, they found only four third-party domains, which they claimed were typical of any social media platform to use for matters such as network security and user certification.

That still leaves nine of the third-party domains in the study with potential access to the user data TikTok collects – location, search history, IP address, the videos you watch and how long you watch them.

Another concern the U.S. expressed is the potential for TikTok to be used for spreading propaganda to its 100 million U.S. users.

Chasity McMahan, a junior at Oklahoma Christian who frequents the app, said its biggest downside is misinformation.

“I feel like the bad part about TikTok is that it’s usually just clips and not the full thing — you’re not getting the full context,” McMahan said. “One clip of someone talking about a certain topic can get misconstrued really badly.”

But McMahan is unsure whether the ban will happen or not.

“It has been talked about getting banned since 2020. So, I feel like it’s hard for some people to know if this is real or not, if it’s actually going to happen,” McMahan said.

Lowry said if approached in the right way, taking action could be “wise.”

“If American social medias are putting political pressure to get rid of TikTok in the hopes it will personally benefit them, then I see that as a bad thing. […] But if that’s what you’re concerned about (user data), and you don’t want people having that information, then make it across the board, don’t just apply it to this one group,” Lowry said. “I could honestly see wisdom in that. The algorithm is used to create a predictive outcome and it’s very powerful. Maybe something ought to be done about that.”

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