Maddy Mitchell / Gavel Media

TikTok Time Bomb: App Poses Potential Security Threat

Since its launch in 2017, the trendy short-video creating app TikTok has exploded in popularity around the world.  According to the data firm Sensor Tower, TikTok has been downloaded more than 1.5 billion times with over 700 million downloads in 2019—making it the second most downloaded app of the year, behind WhatsApp. 

TikTok’s increasing popularity with younger generations is largely due to the company’s chosen target audience of those under 18 years of age, combined with its branding as an entertainment platform rather than a lifestyle platform. This approach provides TikTok with a niche market for which it can create focused branding and advertisements to attract younger users. In turn, TikTok can more successfully compete with social media giants like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. 

Not only does the app allow all users to create their own videos, but it also provides a “Discover” page which contains an index of trending hashtags and popular creators. It also features a personalized “For You” feed, a never-ending stream of TikToks optimized to hold your attention, and continuously curated by a machine-learning system that tracks individual user behavior.

The app is currently owned by the Chinese firm based in Beijing called ByteDance, currently the most valuable startup in the world. In 2017, ByteDance entered the U.S. market after purchasing Musical.ly, a similar video-creating platform, and then rebranding the app as TikTok. The app’s skyrocketing popularity and roots in China, which has a history of government interference in large corporations, have prompted intense scrutiny of the app’s content policies and data practices.

Last February, TikTok agreed to pay a record-breaking fine of $5.7 million after allegations that it illegally collected personal data from children younger than 13—a violation of the U.S. Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said its investigation of the company uncovered disturbing practices such as “collecting and exposing the location" of young children.

Today, TikTok faces similar scrutiny regarding adherence to laws on privacy and data collection. American lawmakers including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Marco Rubio (R-F.L.) have expressed concerns that TikTok censors material which the Chinese government deems to be out of line with its political directives and allowing Beijing to collect user data. In a letter to U.S. Army Senator Ryan McCarthy, Schumer wrote that TikTok and other China-based social media companies could be compelled “to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.” 

Although TikTok denied all accusations of government interference in a recent statement, the app’s growing influence on the U.S. and lack of transparency prompted the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to launch a confidential investigation to determine the degree to which the app poses a threat to national security. Additionally, citing growing concerns amid the Defense Department, earlier this month the US Army and Navy banned its members from having the app downloaded on government-issued phones as a precautionary measure to avoid a potential infiltration of U.S. intelligence information. 

Despite this growing distrust of TikTok in the United States, ByteDance has been working to rebuild its public image. Recently, TikTok joined NetChoice, a trade association that has been aggressive in pushing back on critics of tech companies and has begun to enhance its lobbying efforts in the U.S. 

As TikTok works to maintain the enthused audience it gained as one of the world’s fastest-growing apps, a global cultural phenomenon, the United States will continue to face the challenge of evaluating the long-term implications of the company’s data collection and government censorship on national security. 

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