Time is running out for those who want to use the Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat apps from U.S. app stores. On Friday the U.S. Commerce Department announced that it would ban the apps on Sunday – and that will bar the apps from accessing essential Internet services as well. The U.S government has warned that the Chinese government could gain access to user’s personal information on those social media platforms.
“The recent class action lawsuit against TikTok claims the app allegedly sends locations, ages, private messages, phone numbers, contacts, genders, browsing history, cell-phone numbers and IP addresses to Chinese servers – the fact is many data brokers buy and sell this data derived by many apps to companies and nation-states without a user’s knowledge,” explained Rosa Smothers, senior vice president of Cyber Operations with KnowBe4 and former CIA intelligence officer.
“The concern here is that TikTok and WeChat apps are ostensibly under the direct influence of an adversary and a backdoor could enable further data exfiltration from a targeted user’s phone,” added Smothers.
Experts have already weighed in to offer their thoughts on why this wasn’t really a huge surprise and more importantly what it means for users.
“The Executive Order to block TikTok and WeChat is no surprise, as it was announced some time ago,” said Saryu Nayyar, CEO of Gurucul.
“The challenge is balancing public wants, national security perceptions, and valid cybersecurity concerns,” added Nayyar. “Social media applications are important platforms for public discourse and influence, but we have seen numerous incidents where these platforms can be abused to any number of ends.”
While it remains to be seen whether the national security concerns are justified and valid, it is notable that there has been a steady uptick in downloads since President Trump announced in early August that TikTok’s days were numbered.
“Users will still be able to access TikTok on their phones if it’s already been downloaded. However, it’s safe to assume that receiving any sort of future software update from TikTok will not likely happen as Apple, Google, and Microsoft will most likely comply with the federal government,” explained Brandon Jarman, communications specialist at Verizon.
The bigger question will be whether big tech actually enforces the ban.
“Ultimately, it will be up to Google, Apple, and Microsoft to see that the TikTok app is removed from their respective app stores,” added Jarman. “I think it’s safe to say that they will most likely comply with the U.S. government given that TikTok will eventually return to app stores once the Oracle/Walmart takeover is a little more fleshed out.”
The Collection of Data
This is hardly the first time – and likely this won’t be the last time – a social media based company has found itself under the spotlight for how it collects, and more importantly uses, consumer data. The issue is whether TikTok has done anything worse than American firms that operate in the same space.
“There are many layers to this issue but it comes down to a fundamental need for surveillance reform in defense of our first amendment rights,” said Chloé Messdaghi, vice president of strategy at Point3 Security.
“Social Media channels have evolved very rapidly and they benefited and profited greatly from an across the board, de facto trust we’ve placed in them,” said Messdaghi. “We’ve inherently accepted that they are allowed to collect our data for their purposes, without disclosing how that data is being used. Today, the major social media companies know so much more about you and I than we know, and in terms of consumer rights and transparency they act a bit like they are their own personal governments. Documentaries such as The Social Dilemma are really just beginning to take a hard look at what we’ve surrendered in terms of privacy rights, and to what end.”
There is also no denying that social media – with its billions of users – has eclipsed the traditional media in how quickly it can spread information or even misinformation. Given that fact social media could be manipulated further to sow disinformation in a way that was never possible with traditional media outlets.
“The fallout from unchecked social media’s data gathering has included a ballooning concern about fake news and the growing awareness that content is being served to us that’s highly attuned to our interests, locations, demographics and even individual patterns, preferences, values, attitudes, friends, hobbies, passions, and influences,” added Messdaghi. “It’s been a major factor in the spread of fringe groups such as QAnon.”
But Is It Really Being Used
The counter argument is that social media has already become a tool to “over share” on a scale that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. People already post way too much about their personal lives, so that information is out there.
Then there is that fact that it isn’t known how much Beijing has really done – if anything – with TikTok or WeChat data.
“As of now there is no publicly available evidence that China had access to or used this data,” said Messdaghi. “It’s just being assumed, and that’s unfortunate from a first amendment standpoint. In 2020, TikTok is one of the dominant platforms that has helped help likeminded people to share information and plans, and come together. Much as Twitter did during Arab Spring, TikTok has served as a catalyst in this summer of social upheaval and progress-minded action. Banning TikTok thwarts that.”
Of course it should be noted that Beijing has invoked similar social media bans on US platforms, citing similar data privacy concerns.
“So again, it comes down to the amount of surveillance that We The People permit social platforms to conduct,” added Messdaghi. “Will we remain passive? Or will we instead urge our legislators to take strong actions in order to both protect the privacy of our personal data and preferences, and protect our communications channels as conduits for free speech?”