TikTok is really that dangerous

The Chinese app TikTok is already banned in India, the US government is considering similar measures, as is the Amazon group for its employees. How serious the deficiencies in terms of data protection, security and espionage actually are. 

The social media app TikTok breaks all records: never before has mobile entertainment software gained so many users in such a short time. According to surveys by the data service provider Sensor Tower , the number of downloads worldwide exceeded the two billion mark at the end of April . In June alone, more than 87 million additional users were added worldwide . TikTok was the most frequently downloaded mobile phone program from app stores worldwide , ahead of Zoom, Facebook , WhatsApp and Instagram . 

This means that smartphone software is not only a global phenomenon , it is also the first social network of global importance to come from a Chinese company. But in parallel with the rapid expansion, criticism of the platform is growing. The US government has been checking the security of the software for a long time, and now President Donald Trump is even threatening a ban in the US . Microsoft officially confirmed on Sunday for the first time that it wanted to buy TikTok’s US business. According to its own information, TikTok has 100 million users in the US.

India has already banned the app, and security gaps have repeatedly been discovered in Germany in recent months. The US group Amazon even published a request to its employees not to install TikTok on company devices – and withdrew them shortly afterwards.

“We are committed to protecting the privacy and security of our users and enabling fulfilling careers for those who create creative content on our platform,” says TikTok itself. Can the app do that? Four questions and answers about the controversial software.

What is TikTok about?

Similar to the Google subsidiary Youtube, TikTok is also a video service that lives from the fact that its users publish their own films on the platform. The program has been known under its current name since August 2018. At that time, the owner, the Chinese company Bytedance, renamed the popular app previously known as musical.ly to TikTok. 

The individual video snippets are usually much shorter than with other video services. The videos, often only around 15 seconds long, often show private karaoke recordings, dances, animals, everyday things or joke scenes – some of them characterized by very robust humor. One film follows the next, in a wild, colorful, almost infinite stream.

In view of its reach, companies and institutions are increasingly using the platform in addition to private users to reach younger target groups. The mail order company Otto and the Bundesliga clubs FC Bayern and Borussia Dortmund are already swimming in the TikTok stream, as are the German offshoots of the US beverage brand Punica and the Swedish fashion retailer H&M . The Tagesschau also regularly publishes short snippets of news via the service and has several 10,000 followers.

The enthusiasm of the user base, consisting mainly of teenagers and young adults, for the service is enormous. TikTok had reached the first billion users after just two years; faster than any other social media service before. It took eight years for the world’s largest network, Facebook , seven years for Messenger WhatsApp and the Chinese provider WeChat, at least six. According to various estimates, the platform has between 500 and 800 million regularly active users. In Germany, the number of users should now be well over nine million people.

Who is behind the app?

The company behind TikTok is Beijing Bytedance Technology , or Bytedance for short, founded in 2012 by the Chinese internet entrepreneur Zhang Yiming . She develops and operates several digital platforms that work with the help of adaptive software. This includes the news website Toutiao (in German: “Headlines”).

After taking over the competitor musical.ly for around 800 million dollars in autumn 2017, Bytedance has been operating the service worldwide under the name TikTok since summer 2018, in China it’s called Douyin.

Bytedance is privately owned, little is known about the exact ownership structure. One of the largest single investors is said to be Softbank founder Masayoshi Son, who invested around three billion US dollars in the company in 2018. Other investors include the large US venture capital firms General Atlantic, KKR and Sequoia Capital.

TikTok founder Zhang Yiming studied electrical engineering and software development at Nankai State University in Tjianjin. After working for several IT and Internet companies, including Microsoft at times , Zhang founded his first online company in 2009 with the real estate platform 99fang.com. With the proceeds from his exit from 99fang, he started Bytedance in 2012.

What allegations are there against TikTok?

There are criticisms of the video platform from different directions. One of the most frequently cited allegations at the moment is that the service may process user data to a large extent in China and that information about users there could therefore come under the control of government agencies.

This concern is thus similar to the criticism that is also raised against the IT and network equipment supplier Huawei . TikTok rejects any suspicions and emphasizes that as a private company it is independent of the Chinese state. However, critics consider such independence – especially against the background of the lack of rule of law in China – to be unenforceable.

In the United States , a possible threat of espionage has been discussed in parliament since last year. According to media reports, investigations by a congress committee into the security of user data at TikTok have been ongoing since autumn 2019. However, the results of the investigations were just as little known as concrete evidence that information has actually flowed to the Chinese government.

At the end of May of this year, it was announced that Bytedance is looking for around 150 employees in California to expand the business there. Market observers also interpret this as an attempt to position themselves more internationally and possibly to make themselves more independent of Chinese influence. Another sign of internationalization is that the company hired the former streaming boss of the Disney group, Kevin Mayer, as TikTok boss at the end of June .

Another reason for criticism is the question of whether and to what extent the service may censor the content distributed there in the interests of the Chinese government. In November 2019, for example , the information portal netzpolitik.org documented the criteria that moderators use to evaluate content and filter it from the video stream. According to this, “TikTok […] operates a sophisticated system to identify, control, suppress and direct content.” It is also noticeable that, for example, videos about the protests in Hong Kong against the expansion of Chinese influence there, on the Portal are barely visible.

TikTok stated that they do not moderate content based on political orientations or sensitivities. “Our moderation decisions are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government. TikTok does not remove videos related to the protests in Hong Kong, nor are videos related to the protests in Hong Kong suppressed within their reach. “

At the end of June, the Indian government – together with around 60 other apps – banned the use of TikTok in the country. The services would jeopardize the “sovereignty and integrity of India,” said a statement from the Indian government . It is to be feared that the apps would steal the data of Indian citizens and transfer them to servers outside of India without authorization. 

However, the Indian government did not provide any concrete evidence of an outflow of data. Observers therefore suspect a political background to the ban, as tensions between India and China had recently escalated. 

In addition to the discussion about political independence and influence, there has also been criticism of the youth protection settings in the past. TikTok allows users aged 13 and over and initially made it possible for other users to also send them direct messages and digital “gifts”. According to reports from the Reuters news agency, the US Trade Commission (FTC) and the US Department of Justice opened an investigation into allegations of disregard for children’s privacy. 

The fact that TikTok initially set the privacy of its new users to “public” met with criticism from data protectionists. In the meantime, the platform has adjusted the settings and defines at least the accounts of children and young people as “private” by default. In addition, the exchange of direct messages with minors is deactivated, as is the sending of “gifts”.