Popular video app TikTok has come under the crosshairs of the U.S. government, who allege it poses a national security risk given it is owned by a Chinese company.
U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton are calling on the U.S. intelligence community to investigate the app.
“This is a threat to American security,” Senator Schumer said Friday. “When China has data on 110 million Americans, who knows what they do with it.”
TikTok has gained popularity among a younger demographic for its easy ability to upload, edit and share short videos. It was downloaded 177 million times last quarter, according to mobile data firm Sensor Tower, making it the second most downloaded app worldwide, behind Facebook’s WhatsApp.
Even NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh posted a popular TikTok video that went viral.
It is considered a national security threat due to a Chinese law that says the Chinese government can access the data of any Chinese company if needed, according to Francis Fong, an IT expert with the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation.
The app is owned by Beijing-based Bytedance, putting it within this law, though the company said in a statement that all of its data is stored “entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law.”
Fong though told Global News reporter Jeff Semple that the Chinese law could still make its data available to the Chinese government, and it is right that politicians are doing their due diligence and looking into the threat of the app.
Already there is evidence that the company has censored sensitive content, such as videos from the Hong Kong riots, according to tech analyst Carmi Levy.
Levy said on the Scott Thompson Show that other apps besides TikTok have also presented concerns, such as FaceApp, which gave the Russian company behind it huge access to users’ data in exchange for realistic photos of your face aged.
“Once (an app) is installed on your phone, it has access to all kinds of things because you give it those accesses,” he said. “If this is a company that has origins in Russia or China or North Korea or Iran … then you’ve basically opened yourself up to some very significant risk.”
Levy says that both Apple and Google are supposed to vet apps before allowing them on their respective app stores, but both get millions of requests a year which makes it tough for them to look into the political backgrounds of each company behind an app.
“There are way too many of these apps with way too many concerns,” he said. “There’s almost no way for us to really get on top of all of them.”
Fong says studies show most people don’t read apps’ terms of services of apps before agreeing to share their information, which conflates the issue. While he says there is a “movement” to force companies to write their terms of services in “plain English,” until it is enforced, companies will continue to do business as usual because “it is not a priority.”
Levy says that parents concerned about TikTok shouldn’t outright ban their kids from using the app as that could make them want to use it even more, but to have a conversation about what they are sharing.
“In many cases, the risk isn’t so much the company that makes the app, it’s who we’re sharing it with,” he said, warning about oversharing private information. “You see someone using it for bullying, those are bigger issues (than China).”
-With files from Jeff Semple