As of September 2021, TikTok recorded 1 billion monthly active users worldwide. Having launched internationally in 2017, the video-sharing app has added an average of 250 million users annually, making it one of the fastest growing social media networks of all time. TikTok’s unprecedented rise has persisted despite several countries’ attempts to ban the platform for national security and privacy concerns.
My take: the controversy surrounding TikTok is well-deserved.
TikTok harvests an extraordinary amount of user data and with less restrictions than its social media competitors.
Although Facebook and other social media platforms are eager to mine personal data from users, TikTok presents even greater privacy risks than its predecessors. For instance, in June of 2021, TikTok gave itself permission to collect biometric data from users. Biometric data refers to unique physical or behavioral characteristics (e.g., fingerprints, voice patterns, facial features) that can be utilized to identify a person. A company’s collecting of biometric data presents novel privacy issues because the seemingly innocuous act of filming a person or scene can result in the disclosure of sensitive data without the user’s knowledge.
In sum, TikTok encourages users to volunteer virtually every shred of their personally identifying information aside from their social security number and a cheek swab for DNA. Entrusting technology companies with this sensitive data has led to unfortunate consequences for many individuals. Financial losses reported to the Federal Trade Commission due to fraud and identity theft have steadily increased in lockstep with the burgeoning of social media. Identity theft cases cost Americans approximately $502.5 billion in 2019, $712.4 billion in 2020, and is forecasted to increase in years to come.
Another alarming detail is that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance Ltd., is a Chinese firm and – despite corporate formalities and PR schemes – unmistakably subservient to the whims of the Chinese Communist Party. The CIA confirmed that Chinese authorities retain the capability to extract data from American TikTok users and that the app may provide a medium to access smartphone devices. In effect, that means any information you or your children share with TikTok should be considered to have been provided permanently.
While certain media outlets have argued the U.S. government’s attempt to ban TikTok was a political move grounded in xenophobia, my research has led me to conclude the concerns are well-founded. Americans often take for granted that the Constitution limits the government’s intrusion into our “zones of privacy.” Although the United States government has failed, in my view, to adequately address the privacy detriments associated with the emergence of social media, American technology companies are at least bound by constitutional norms and the threat of new legislation. TikTok is not at all subject to equivalent limitations, yet it may eventually become the steward of more sensitive personal information than any other private company. We should continue to rigorously scrutinize TikTok and other social media companies that retain the details of our private lives.