TikTok, the Chinese-owned popular short-video app, has come under the scrutiny of authorities in various parts of the world. While India banned TikTok in the aftermath of the deadly clash on the China border in June, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order last week, barring American residents from doing any transactions with the Chinese owners of the app. In both the cases, TikTok was accused of posing ‘threats’ to the sovereignty and national security of the respective countries. But is that so? Does TikTok really share its user data with the Chinese government? Or is there something more than meets the eye?
What triggered the scrutiny of TikTok?
TikTok uses US-based Akmai CDN (Content Delivery Network) but doesn’t specifically mention where it stores the user data. French security expert Baptiste Robert (aka Elliott Alderson) says his analysis showed that TikTok has been routing user information to servers with URL links pointing to China, America, America HTTP, SIG AWS (Amazon Web Services Singapore), SIG ALIYUN (Alicloud Singapore), Musically, Musically HTTP.
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TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, is also accused of not informing the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States when it acquired the lip-syncing app, Musical.ly. The committee claims to have jurisdiction over deals between foreign businesses that have operations in the US.
It has also been pointed out that TikTok has a treasure trove of information on what several millions of US citizens, particularly the youth, are watching and what they want to search on the platform.
Is TikTok being singled out?
Possibly. There aren’t glaring concerns that TikTok is breaching the user privacy protocol compared to other social media platforms. Robert says TikTok regularly logs information such as device ID, device brand, OS version, user’s current location and the TikTok app version. Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram do the same. There is little evidence that ByteDance is sharing the user data with the Chinese government.
TikTok’s Chinese ownership aside, the American administration seems to be wary of the app’s ability to give a platform to political activists. During the Black Lives Matter rallies and the ongoing US presidential election campaign, TikTok has become a popular platform for political activism. Some experts fear that China may control or censor some content on TikTok, possibly swaying voter sentiments towards a particular candidate.
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But what truly makes TikTok stand out is its use of Artificial Intelligence algorithm that helps it quickly learn what a user and their friends are watching. In short, it offers hyper-personalised content.
What’s TikTok’s future?
Some analysts say Trump signed the executive order to pressure ByteDance into selling TikTok to an American company. Before the executive order, Trump had declared that he doesn’t favour ByteDance selling a part of stakes to an American company but that he wants an outright sale.
Later, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella met Trump and announced the company is in talks with ByteDance to acquire TikTok’s operations in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand regions. It remains to be seen if the deal can be finalised before the September 15 deadline set by Trump.
If the deal goes through, Microsoft, which has a strong appeal among adults and the corporate population, will be able to attract youths, potentially acquiring a ‘cool’ brand image.
But Microsoft wouldn’t be the only tech giant to benefit from l’affaire TikTok. Facebook-owned Instagram has rolled out a new feature called Reels in India and dozens of other countries, which allows users to create short videos that can be enhanced with visual effects. TikTok called it copying.
Will India revoke the TikTok ban?
Despite the anti-China sentiments in India, ByteDance is hopeful of the government revoking the ban. In a recent letter to Union Minister of Electronics and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad, TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer expressed the desire to meet him and specify ByteDance’s commitment to setting up a local data centre. He also assured to share its user privacy and data-sharing practices. Furthermore, the company is willing to cooperate with the Indian government to clear all security issues.
That TikTok is hopeful of a favourable resolution is evident from the fact that it hasn’t cut any jobs in India so far.