Does TikTok spy on us? Not any more than other social media platforms, experts say

The application’s ban among officials in the EU and US sparks a debate about whether Facebook, which extracts more user data, should face the same restrictions

This week, the European Commission banned officials from using TikTok on their work devices. “This measure aims to protect the Commission against cybersecurity threats and actions which may be exploited for cyber-attacks against the corporate environment of the Commission,” the Commission said in a memo. The EU is following in the footsteps of the US, where congresspeople have beenprohibited from using the Chinese application since last December for security reasons, and a bill is in development to ban it in the entire country. Canada has taken similar measures.

Is TikTok dangerous? “For the average user, TikTok is no more risky than Facebook. That’s not entirely a compliment,” a recent Washington Post investigation concluded. “That’s a good summary of the situation. There’s some fear about what TikTok does, because of the app’s rights to personal data and users’ videos, but even so, it has less access and power than Facebook does,” said Diego Naranjo, political advisor for EDRI, a pan-European NGO that advocates for human rights and privacy in the digital era.

There are reasons to be suspicious of the Chinese application. TikTok spied on Forbes journalists who were working on an article about the platform. And China-based employees for the company have accessed data of users in the US. The main fears about TikTok have to do with access to users’ information, and with the fact that Beijing controls all technology companies in the country. The Chinese National Intelligence Law requires companies to give the government any information it requests, without the need for a court order.

“With the information we have today, it doesn’t look like TikTok is any more risky than other applications on our phones,” Naranjo said. “Thanks to Edward Snowden’s revelations, we have known for years that many American applications that we consider safe give American intelligence access to everything we do,” he added. On the other hand, if we compare the data gathered by different platforms, Facebook surpasses TikTok: it knows the user’s exact location at all times and stores and processes all the information on the user’s profile.

However, prohibiting downloading TikTok may not prevent user data from ending up on Chinese servers. According to research published yesterday by Gizmodo, the platform obtains data from more than 28,000 different applications. That’s not only the case with TikTok: many social networks also obtain information through third parties, using cookies. Gizmodo also revealed three years ago that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Gmail, Snapchat and other apps put US user data at risk just like TikTok because they all have deals with Chinese ad tech companies.

The TikTok bans also have a geopolitical subtext. “The EU is trying to form a bloc against Russia, while the US prioritizes limiting China’s technological power,” said Javier Ruiz, a digital rights consultant. The US is considering applying similar measures to other applications beyond TikTok, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo previously told Bloomberg.

For Ruiz, the restrictions against TikTok are part of a more complex problem with data sovereignty. “In some EU countries, Google and other cloud services have been banned or advised against, given that US tech companies store their data in the US,” he explained. If data is stored on servers outside the EU, they do not fall under strict European privacy regulations. In the US, for example, security agencies can request personal data from individuals on the grounds of national security, which is much more difficult to do in the EU.

The social network of the moment

TikTok has one billion users and was one of the most downloaded apps in the world in 2022. It received more views than Google and managed to retain users longer than YouTube. It is the social network with the greatest success among young people, who even prefer it to Google for searches. Its sudden success has caused other platforms, such as Instagram, to release similar features: short videos selected by the algorithm.

Perhaps the secret behind its success lies in the fact that the user has no ability to alter what is shown. It doesn’t have the limitations of other social networks, in which users share the content that ends up on their screens. In the case of TikTok, the algorithm decides which videos become successful, regardless of their origin. It is a viral content-sharing machine.

This is how analyst Ben Thompson summarized the keys to TikTok’s success: “First, humans like videos. Second, the video creation tools on TikTok are very accessible and inspiring for non-professional video shooters. But the crucial element is that TikTok is not really a social network.”

The application, developed by the Chinese giant ByteDance, announced on Wednesday that minors who want to use the app for more than 60 minutes in a day must enter a code, “requiring them to make an active decision to extend that time.” The European Consumer Organization (BEUC), which brings together 45 groups, denounced TikTok before the European Commission two years ago for “multiple EU consumer law breaches.” The complaint focused on the exposure of children and adolescents to “hidden advertising and inappropriate content.”