TikTok: The Greatest Threat to American Democracy since Facebook
We experienced a data collection disaster with Facebook — can we avoid making the same mistake with TikTok?
TikTok has quickly become a favorite among Americans of every generation, from Gen Z’ers to Boomers since joining the U.S. digital marketplace in 2018. Since then, it has grown into one of the most popular mobile apps, with roughly 80 million monthly active users in the United States, surpassing Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram to become the world’s most downloaded iOS app.
Unlike the other social platforms, which are U.S.-based, TikTok is owned by a Beijing-based internet technology company called ByteDance.
Why is this important?
In short, TikTok has recently come under fire for its data collection strategy. The app purportedly gathers everything from your location to your text messages and contacts. And the real danger lies with how they will leverage the data they’re collecting. Will they use it for advertising or will they use it to sway an election?
What’s being collected?
Just last month, it was confirmed that TikTok is still reading your clipboard every one to three keystrokes. Your text messages, emails, passwords, bank logins and more are being tracked and could potentially get leaked.
Reddit user /u/bangorlol reverse-engineered the TikTok app and wrote a post urging people to ditch the social app. In his exploration of the back-end of the app, he found that it was collecting information unbeknownst to the user, including phone hardware, other installed apps, network information, and GPS location.
Steve Huffman, the CEO of Reddit, stated “that app is so fundamentally parasitic, that it’s always listening, the fingerprinting technology they use is truly terrifying, and I could not bring myself to install an app like that on my phone.” He’s right. And it doesn’t stop there.
TikTok is accused of using fingerprinting practices, which are generally deemed a bit controversial because of the level of detail it takes from users. Fingerprinting, as explained by TechCrunch, is when “many websites — and their advertisers — try to track you by collecting as much information about your browser, including its plugins and extensions, and your device, such as its make, model, and screen resolution, to create a “fingerprint” that’s unique to you. That fingerprint is used to track you across websites to figure out which sites you visit — and which targeted ads to serve up.”
In addition to Canvas Fingerprinting, TikTok also uses Audio Fingerprinting to identify people visiting their site. They aren’t using your microphone or speakers from your device. They are generating sounds internally and recording the bitstream from your device. Here’s an example of what that sounds like:
Plenty of sites are using Fingerprinting in the name of marketing — it isn’t unique to TikTok. We are essentially being digitally strip-searched so advertisers can sell to us. Doing both Canvas and Audio Fingerprinting feels excessive.
The obvious conclusion from these discoveries is that the app is greatly infringing upon users’ personal privacy. Recently, however, people in the United States have come to fear a much more frightening implication. TikTok could conceivably leave the United States vulnerable to cyber attacks or disclosure of sensitive information if the user data is obtained by political enemies or governments with malicious intent.
While the data collection may not seem alarming to the everyday citizen, it could have implications for the entire country if sensitive information of a prominent U.S. figure was hacked.
But everyone is doing it!
So how is TikTok’s data collection different from other social tools?
Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are U.S.-based businesses that still have to comply with U.S. government regulations concerning data privacy. Having data on American users stay with American businesses seems far better than having it end up in the hands of the Chinese government.
The question remains whether or not TikTok would comply with any requests for cooperation from the state-run Chinese government. The social giant stores U.S. user data in the United States and backs it up in Singapore, but according to Chinese internet laws, the company legally cannot refuse to share data with the government since the parent company of TikTok is China-based.
This data mining is potentially dangerous for one’s own privacy and for larger economic and security issues, such as American safety, behavioral trends, and the spread of misinformation.
The threat to American Democracy
The Cambridge Analytica x Facebook scandal changed the trajectory of this nation for generations. It provided the Trump campaign with the raw data of 87 million Facebook profiles. likely influencing the national election—an election that put Donald Trump in charge of appointing nearly 200 federal judges including two Supreme Court justices with the potential for more should he be reelected. These judges will shape the rule of law in America for generations.
We’ve experienced this disaster once with Facebook — we cannot make the same mistake at TikTok and China’s behest.
The reality is that the same government that has built a social credit system for its own citizens now has the ability to mine data from people all over the world —including young children.
This is the same government that is accused of committing genocide & mass sterilization against Uyghur Muslims and suppressing their COVID-19 numbers the same way they suppressed their SARS numbers. Putting our data and trust into TikTok expands on China’s ability to do these things on a global level.
It’s a direct threat to the United States especially as our nation approaches our first Presidential election in the post-Cambridge Analytica era.
Since the beginning of social media, users have been warned to be cautious of what they post online. Too often, we see victims of digital fraud, where someone’s information or images are unknowingly used by a cybercriminal for wrongful purposes.
Another consideration is the impact of what you’re posting now has on your future. As social media and the internet progresses, we are seeing more and more people losing their status, careers, and relationships due to the resurfacing of older inappropriate and harmful posts, comments, and images.
Of the United States’ TikTok users, 63.5% are 10–24 years old. Critics argue that TikTok can preserve less-than-flattering information about future generations, ultimately providing a path to cancel culture. How many celebrities and public figures have been canceled in the past year? They’re getting canceled over things they have actually said or posted.
With apps like TikTok using multi-angle biometric scans of their users, they can use the data to produce deepfake content. According to TechCrunch, TikTok snuck deepfake tech into the app code back in January, but it was never launched fully. Deepfakes can be used as a political threat. Videos can be doctored showing politicians making comments they never made. Here’s a great example from Jordan Peele and Buzzfeed:
In a recent report, the research group Deeptrace found that 96 percent of deepfakes found online are pornographic. Of those, almost all are of women and made without their consent. An example of this is actress Kristen Bell who had her face manipulated onto a pornstars body and circulated as a Kristen Bell sex tape. Imagine getting passed over for a job or promotion over something you never said or a doctored deepfake video because someone had a vendetta against you.
TikTok also admitted to censoring and suppressing videos from disabled, queer, and fat people. Their reason? To prevent online bullying. With this type of power, they have the ability to suppress protests and global movements. They have the ability to influence elections.
The future of TikTok
Governments are beginning to step in and ban their citizens from using TikTok. India recently banned the use of TikTok, along with other Chinese-owned apps, paving the way for the United States to do so as well. The Indian government cited “safety and sovereignty of Indian cyberspace” as the reason for the ban.
Keep in mind that American based social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have been blocked in China for years — Facebook has been banned since 2009.
Censoring and banning social media in the U.S. sets a dangerous precedent. But, while TikTok appears to be dangerous, we can’t assume the average citizen is fully informed on the associated risks with the app. One thing is clear: advancements in technology have outpaced measures to protect the privacy of people.
Do we need government intervention? Does the government bear a responsibility to protect its citizens or do the citizens have the right to decide for themselves?
I don’t have the answers — I just know I dislike both scenarios.