TikTok & China: Is Big Brother Watching You Dance?

Petr Kratochvil

Alexander Hill and Alora Watts

TikTok is a large and expansive social media platform. Many consider it the resurrected version of Vine due to the fast paced nature of the videos posted. Others consider it the spiritual successor of the infamous Musically because of the lip-syncing aspect of the media platform. Many surveyed Bob Jones students weren’t aware  that TikTok is a Chinese product, and some of them didn’t even care. After all, it’s fun.

Maybe they should care. According the Economic Times, TikTok overtook Facebook as the most downloaded social networking application globally in the first quarter of 2019. Also, NBC News reported that the “U.S. Army, following the lead of the Navy and guidance from the Defense Department, banned TikTok from government-owned phones because of concerns about the app.”

Peter Secui of ClearanceJobs reported, “The issue isn’t just the app, it’s the access it is giving to the user’s entire device. TikTok can access the camera and microphone of users, as well as images on the device, and depending on how a user signs in, send tracking access to one’s Google, Facebook or Instagram accounts.” In the same article, Ray Walsh, a data privacy advocate at ProPrivacy.com, shared, “Any U.S. citizens that use TikTok needs to be aware of the app’s Chinese roots, and they need to consider carefully where their data is being accumulated, especially considering that TikTok is believed to store and send back user videos made with the app, regardless of whether they are posted or not.”

China is no stranger to surveillance and censorship. 

In a recent story, for example, a user posted a video with an anti-Chinese message, and the video was promptly taken down without an explanation. This sparked some outrage, as the idea that the freedom of speech promised by the internet was promptly taken away. The site eventually apologized for taking down the video.

The surveyed Bob Jones students’ response to the idea that they might be monitored by the Chinese government was overwhelmingly negative, with the primary emotion being that of discomfort.

What’s scariest is the unknown; nobody really knows what the company does with the data that they’re collecting with TikTok. In an effort to combat any uncertainty, TikTok released its first transparency report. Notably, China didn’t make any requests, though India and the United States made multiple requests. This is probably due to the fact that users can’t even use TikTok in China.

TikTok spokesperson Eric Ebenstein added, “For example, the report shows how we responded to the 298 legal requests for information we received from 28 countries over this 6-month period. In balancing our responsibilities to law enforcement with our respect for the privacy of our users, we respond only to legally valid requests and only with the requisite amount of information needed. It also shows how we responded to the 26 requests to remove or restrict content from government bodies in 9 countries, as well as how we handled content copyright take-down requests to help copyright holders protect their intellectual property.”

Though the transparency report may have good intentions, the report itself only provides what the company chooses to share.

So, the next time that you decide to browse TikTok, especially when you’re recording yourself, consider whose platform you’re using.