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TikTok as China’s surveillance tool: red flag or paranoia?


For many, endlessly scrolling down newsfeeds is nothing more than a guilty pleasure. But we are beginning to see the weaponization and politicization of the time-stealing social platforms that we love. The video-sharing app TikTok is no stranger to such controversy. As the US considers banning the video-sharing app, there is an increasing argument that we need to understand the consequences of what we are sharing online.

TikTok was investigated in the UK after suspicions were raised around how it uses its young users' personal data. There were also concerns around just how seriously it treated the safety of children on its platform. It seemed that boomers and Karens wanted to ruin the fun by labelling it unsecure and accused it of being frequented by hackers and child traffickers.

How apps snoop your sensitive clipboard data

Researchers recently reported that apps such as TikTok could access any data on the clipboard of an iPhone without the user knowing. Behind the headlines, however, there is no evidence that TikTok is spying or using the clipboard data on iOS devices for wrongdoing. But knowing that these vulnerabilities exist highlights why we should exercise caution when copying and pasting between Apple devices.

Are TikTok and other iPhone apps snooping on what you copy-and-paste without permission? video screenshot

As global geopolitical tensions continue to rise, there is increasing concern that the data TikTok collects from its users could end up in the hands of the Chinese government. TikTok has repeatedly insisted that the Chinese government does not influence it. But this is where things quickly get complicated. 

ByteDance, a Beijing-based company headquartered in Los Angeles, launched TikTok in 2017. The fact that Chinese companies are required to share information with their government makes authorities a little nervous outside of China. Could watching silly TikTok videos really provide a back door to sophisticated surveillance methods by the Chinese? Or are growing tensions making everyone a little paranoid?

Red flags or paranoia?

The recent news that plans for a global TikTok HQ in Britain have been shelved due to the tit-for-tat trade war between London and Beijing will only fuel unease and further rumours. Another example is the Indian government, which banned dozens of Chinese apps due to national security concerns. The rise in digital protectionism is building virtual barriers to divide rather than unite the global community.

As governments in the East and West try to control the narrative in their regions, it appears that social media platforms are rapidly becoming political pawns. Those that dare to look beyond the sensationalist headlines will struggle to find any evidence that TikTok harms our privacy more than any of the other social media platforms. 

Accusations that it's also used extensively by hackers and child traffickers also appear to be unfounded. At a time of increasing paranoia, uncertainty, and confusion fuelling espionage fears, it can be challenging to understand what is real and what isn't.  

TikTok is also accused of spreading propaganda and agendas by promoting narratives through its incredibly addictive platform. But as the US begins to explore the possibility of banning the Chinese based app, many will find many similarities with platforms in the West and the increasing feeling that Facebook is a threat to democracy, too.

China does not have the best reputation when it comes to surveillance. The concept of a social scoring system where your next Facebook post could prevent you from accessing a loan or mortgage feels a little too close for comfort to the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive.” With so many red flags, TikTok is challenged with convincing the world that there are no nefarious intentions with its data collection process.

The weaponization and politicization of all social platforms

While mainstream media is advising families to avoid Chinese-built phones and apps, it's easy to miss the point that all of the big tech companies now dominate almost every aspect of our lives. There is also an argument that the likes of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google flirt dangerously with mass surveillance too. Finding a teenager that never uses these apps is highly unlikely and highlights the bigger problem.

Data is being collected from every click, swipe, like, and share to enable these apps to spoon-feed your views and preferred content back to you. Whether your favourite app is located in Beijing or Silicon Valley, the weaponization and politicization of social platforms are becoming a problem that we all need to take seriously. 

The best weapon is a curious mind. By questioning everything that you read and information that you share with tech companies, you and your family will see that the problem is much bigger than TikTok. Rather than picking a side, maybe as parents, we should educate our kids that endlessly scrolling down the newsfeed of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snap, TikTok, or any platform is unhealthy. 

The saddest part of this tale is the inconvenient truth that, more often than not, it's the parents, not their kids who are blissfully unaware that their smartphone addiction is the bigger problem at hand. But that is a topic for another day.

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