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By: Caroline Salim

In 2018, Chinese tech giant, ByteDance, folded previously created app Musical.ly into what is now a global trending app, TikTok. TikTok is a social media app that allows users to share their talents, comedy, lip-syncing, vlogs and more. The format of the app allows users to mindlessly scroll through videos and watch video after video with just a slight flick of a finger.

From the end of 2021, TikTok has grown from reaching 1 billion users to 1.8 billion users at the end of 2022. During the original launch of the app in the United States, video lengths were limited to just 60 seconds, but since the growth of the app, users can post videos upwards of three minutes. The app also encourages people to interact with the content. Viewers of videos can like, comment, and share, but they also have the ability to “stitch” a TikTok which lets users add on to a pre-existing video or “duet.” This allows a user to put their video side by side with an already posted video. Similar to other social media apps, the app creates an algorithm to match a user’s interests based on what content they interact with. The app appeals to a wide range of ages, with the biggest demographic grouping (67%) being 18-19 years of age, but there is also a decent sized group (16%) of users between the age of 60-64.  While the app is primarily a tool to share content, there is also potential to make money off TikTok, dependent on the amount of interactions and viewers a creator’s content reaches, but also through brand sponsorships.

While the app has many upsides such as allowing for users to share stories, create content to express themselves, or provide tutorials, local officials and other organizations have also jumped to use the app for their benefit. The arguably user-friendly nature of the app enables information to be spread to new users and across demographics. Many organizations and companies recognize this ability and have capitalized on it. The NBA has even created their own accounts to post videos of their players, highlights of games, and more to promote their own team. While some of the accounts are made for more casual reasons, organizations such as Planned Parenthood have taken to the app to provide information about reproductive health and abortion clinics.

Why Could the App Possibly Get Banned?

Similar to many social media apps, the app wants users to continue to use it; therefore, it tracks users’ likes and interactions to produce similar content. The app also has the ability to store information such as messages shared back and forth on the app, where  a user is watching videos, how long they are watching, and what device they are using. Another concern that may not be on a user’s radar at first is the capability of biometric information. Content creators grant access to their microphone and camera in order to create content, and with this permission the biometric data collected from TikTok can be combined with other information online to track and log the whereabouts of a user.

While TikTok enables a space for content creators to have an outlet for expression and allows organizations to reach millions of viewers in a short timeframe, recently there have been major security concerns surrounding the data privacy of the app. In early December 2022, FBI Director  Christopher Wray expressed concern that the app was collecting private and personally identifiable information that could be accessed by the Chinese government for uses other than the permission given by the user. Wray has come out and said that the concerns include the possibility that the Chinese government, “could use it to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations . . . or to control software on millions of devices, which gives it an opportunity to potentially technically compromise personal devices.” The Chinese Communist Party has the power and authority to compel foreign and domestic firms operating within the country to share their data with the government upon request.

What Steps Have Been Taken?

As of January 2023, over 25 states have placed TikTok bans on state devices. Of those states, Texas, Tennessee, and Maryland have banned TikTok from all state devices, while other states like Florida and Pennsylvania have banned TikTok on only some devices. Within a month, as of February 2, 2023, the number of states banning TikTok on government devices jumped from 25 to 31 states. And just three weeks after that, on February 28, 2023, the White House moved to ban the app in all states on all federal devices, giving government agencies 30 days to delete the app. This move is a general one to ensure the protection of American “digital infrastructure.”

On March 1, 2023, the European Union banned TikTok from staff devices over cybersecurity concerns, meaning the Chinese video-sharing app is now barred in all three of the EU’s main institution. The United States was right behind them, having introduced a bill on March 7, 2023, the RESTRICT  Act, that would give the federal government the power to restrict and possibly ban technologies emanating from China or other United States adversaries. This new piece of legislation would give the government new tools to mitigate national security risks in the tech sector, creating a systematic framework to address technology based threats to the privacy and safety of Americans.

While there are several concerns to a user’s data privacy when enjoying the app, there are ways to limit the amount of data a user discloses. If users are fearful of data breaches, but still want to continue to use the app, they can through changing internal settings or deleting their account completely. Deleting an account does not take away a user’s ability to watch and enjoy the app.

In the end, while TikTok is a mindless way to destress at the end of a long day, document fun live events, or capture funny moments, it is important to stay mindful of greater issues that reach beyond our fingertips.