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Will Privacy and Spyware Concerns Topple TikTok?

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

TikTok spyware and privacy concerns
TikTok's popularity has grown rapidly, but so have concerns over user privacy.

TikTok’s ascent to the top of Top Downloaded lists everywhere has been almost inconceivably quick. But is the most popular app in the US set to be banned amid lawmakers’ outrage over privacy and spyware concerns?

Below, we look at what’s driven the viral app’s rise—and what’s behind its possible downfall.

TikTok’s Meteoric Rise

Although the short-form video sensation was founded in 2016, TikTok really took off at the start of 2018, after a merger with another popular Chinese platform, Capturing the attention of the youngest generations in particular, downloads of the app soared—and they haven’t slowed since, with the app’s active-user count ballooning from just 55 million in January 2018 to over 1.6 billion by the end of 2022.

Naturally, the app’s rapid rise has not only been fueled by viral dance challenges and #dayinthelife videos. With the ability to drastically boost sales numbers of everything from Ocean Spray to cleaning supplies, marketing on TikTok has quickly matured, and for brands of all stripes, the proposition of maintaining a presence on the platform has moved from “maybe” to “must.”

In 2022 alone, TitTok revenues more than doubled on the back of increased ad spend. And according to Omdia research, it could more than triple by 2027. That is, assuming the app can somehow avoid the looming threat of a ban in the US.

TikTok dance video

As TikTok Grows, So Do Data Concerns

Concerns and consternation over TikTok, which at the end of March reached a fever pitch during hearings on the US House floor, have grown right alongside the company’s popularity.

Since the app’s global growth began, TikTok has been the target of frequent criticism, with detractors calling attention to everything from its addictive qualities to its alleged censorship and platforming of hate speech and misinformation. However, at the heart of the conversation raging now on Capitol Hill and in the White House are concerns over users’ privacy and the app’s alleged ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

For their part, TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, have dismissed the increasingly loud privacy concerns as “political theater” and the product of anti-Chinese xenophobia. But despite taking significant steps to assuage concerns over the use of US users’ data, the company is still likely facing a ban if it continues to refuse to sell to another, US-approved owner.

What’s Behind Calls for a Ban of TikTok?

Although other social media giants are no strangers to charges of surveillance and data misuse, critics say the accusations that have been leveled at TikTok are fundamentally different in nature.

For years, there have been fears about the kind of user data collected by the company. Indeed, the company’s privacy policy permits it to collect biometric data like “fingerprints and voiceprints.” (That’s in addition to direct messages, payment information, contacts, and more.) Research has also shown that TikTok’s in-app web browser is capable of recording every keystroke made by users. Meanwhile, the company has also been credibly accused of—and even admitted to—improper surveillance of journalists.

But privacy worries aren’t just centered around what is collected by TikTok, but on who may have access to that data—namely, China’s authoritarian government.

This particular issue came to the fore in the summer of 2022, after a Buzzfeed report undercut the company’s primary defense against critics. For years, the company had insisted that US user data was not stored in China. In a much-publicized statement, TikTok had claimed years prior that this data was all stored on-shore in the US, with backup redundancy in Singapore. Yet the reporting by Buzzfeed insisted that ByteDance employees in China had repeatedly accessed non-public data on US TikTok users.

These revelations only fanned the flames of fears from lawmakers and national security insiders that, in addition to potentially influencing the content viewed on the app, the Chinese Communist Party might already be conducting widespread surveillance on Americans.

Do the Criticisms of TikTok Hold Water?

While the debate rages, experts disagree about just how close the ties are between TikTok and the CCP, while some analysts point out that if China wants to spy on American citizens, they don’t need to rely on TikTok for that.

Others have echoed TikTok’s own sentiment, saying lawmakers are merely involved in geopolitical posturing—and that a ban on TikTok would do nothing to further the protection of Americans’ privacy while infringing upon First Amendment rights.

As tech columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote in the New York Times, “Lawmakers’ focus on TikTok’s Chinese ownership misses the real problem with how the internet operates, a problem that goes beyond this one app.”

What’s Next for TikTok?

Nevertheless, a wide range of entities—at least 14 states, a variety of state universities, the US military, and several Western governments—have already instituted their own bans and restrictions on the app.

For its part, in March, the Biden administration demanded that the app be sold or risk facing a nationwide ban. Within a week, on the same day that TikTok CEO Shou Chew was grilled by lawmakers, officials in Beijing announced that they would firmly oppose a sale of the app.

The announcement from China certainly limits the options available to President Biden and his counterparts in Congress. Of course, the path to imposing a ban is not a simple one.

Already, one bill that would ban the app has been blocked in the US Senate. Another called the RESTRICT Act, has quickly come under fire and lost momentum after the legislation itself raised privacy concerns. Further attempts at imposing a ban are likely to be met with stiff opposition from free speech advocates including the ACLU—not to mention from millions of devoted TikTok users.

The movement in Congress to ban the app appears, at least for the moment, to be at a standstill.

In the meantime, TikTok is not breaking its stride. In addition to pushing a new Instagram-style app called Lemon8, the company is rushing to complete its so-called “Project Texas,” the $1.5 billion attempt to restructure the way the company stores American users’ data and calm US regulators.

The project, which faced broad skepticism during House hearings, has no timeline for completion. Still, it may be the app’s last and best hope.


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