Toutiao [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
From ridiculous jingles such as ‘Why you so obsessed with me?’ to even more ridiculous trends like making Mayonnaise jars into shoes, an unlikely app has taken the world by storm.
TikTok, known as Douyin in China where it was released a year before its debut in the United States, is a video sharing app where people across the globe share short, comical videos with the rest of the world. Recently, however, this app has been a source of growing concern to senators across the aisle. Senator and House Minority Leader Democrat Chuck Schumer, and Arkansas Senator Republican Tom Cotton issued a letter to Joseph Maguire, the Director of National Intelligence, in which they voiced their concerns that something (stanky and) fishy is going on with the Chinese-based app.
Beijing ByteDance Technology Co Ltd., TikTok’s parent company better known as ByteDance, reached billions worldwide, and with that came an immense amount of influence–influence that the company has in the past, and could further, abuse all too easily. While these concerns are justified to a certain extent the idea that TikTok is the only social media platform that poses these kinds of threats is a dangerous belief for our congressmen and women to have.
In addition, senators are worried that the Chinese government could potentially force ByteDance to hand over information the application collects about its American users. The concerns the senators voiced are, without question, valid. However, their concerns stand in the shadows of a much larger issue with regards to the protection and regulation of sensitive information that applications like TikTok collect. TikTok is far from the only application that collects sensitive information, meaning that in order to truly protect the privacy of the people, these concerns must be examined on a much broader scope.
This is not the first time that the U.S. has been wary of Chinese-based media companies. In recent months, the U.S. government barred the Chinese communications giant Huawei from operating in the United States for fears that the company was engaging in malicious activities on behalf of the Chinese government. While concerns regarding China are in a league all their own, there are some concerns the senators expressed that could apply to almost any if not all social media platforms of comparable size and nature.
In addition, Senators were concerned was the fact that the company is “powered by algorithms that ‘learn’ each user’s interests and preferences through repeat interaction.” They believe that this poses a threat to the security of users information, but is this not how all applications of that nature operate?
When I open Instagram or even less personal applications like Pinterest, I am met with images and content that have been tailored to me. These applications show me—and you—what they think we want to see the most. What they think will keep us on the application the longest. It’s how these applications make money. This isn’t to say that this method of operation isn’t concerning, but it isn’t just TikTok that senators should be concerned about mishandling such information.
Another concern the senators cited was the potential that TikTok had to negatively influence campaigns. To this, I turn your eyes to the 2016 presidential elections, where 3,300 advertisements from companies operated in Russia were posted on Facebook during the 2016 election cycle. Facebook has time and time again has treated the responsibility they hold as a platform that reaches millions with a dangerous sort of nonchalance. They admit to Russia using their platform to influence the election, yet that have done little to nothing to set up measures to prevent the same thing from happening again in the future. Neither has the United State government.
The notion that TikTok poses a potential counterintelligence threat because of its ties to the Chinese government is justified. However, with regard to issues like data collection and the spread of improper information, the demons aren’t always overseas, and sometimes, they look like lizards; a term the internet has given billionaire and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
If the United States wants to ensure that its data is unequivocally safe, some major changes need to happen here at home first. The Trump administration must name a cybersecurity advisor who can unlock his phone without the help of an Apple genius. Companies like Facebook must be held as accountable as anyone else. The law needs to be clear about what companies—foreign and domestic—can and cannot do. Until this happens, even when you close one hole, such as TikTok, you remain vulnerable because of much bigger ones in your own backyard.