TikTok has become the subject of widespread paranoia thanks to recent bombshell reporting by BuzzFeed News illustrating critics’ concerns about the vulnerability of TikTok user data. “Everything is seen in China,” said a TikTok’s Trust and Safety department member in a September 2021 meeting, Buzzfeed reported. This seems to contradict TikTok executives’ previous testimony claiming that Chinese employees’ access to U.S. user data is strictly controlled.
The 2017 National Intelligence Law mandates that Chinese organizations and citizens “support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work.” In other words, companies that operate in China can be compelled to provide data to the government. Nine Republican senators issued a letter to TikTok in response to the BuzzFeed report. The letter from Sen. Blackburn includes the questions, “If the Chinese Communist Party asked you for U.S. user data, what is to stop you from providing it? Can the CCP compel you to provide this data or access it themselves, regardless of response?”
Like practically all tech platforms, TikTok stores not only the content that users create on the platform but also significant metadata on users — and will turn that information over to law enforcement if legally compelled to do so. According to a leaked document provided to police and reported by Business Insider, for TikTok, that can include usernames, how and when users signed up for the service, phone numbers, device types, and significant location data.
TikTok admitted that Chinese engineers and executives are integral to the development and functioning of the app but insisted that U.S. user data is safe. TikTok announced on June 17, 2022 that 100% of U.S. user data will now be stored in the U.S. via Oracle, with some backups held in Singapore. In addition to storing data, TikTok is working to make all data sharing outside of the U.S. compliant with the terms of the U.S. government.
Despite this recent scrutiny, many cybersecurity experts suggest keeping all this in perspective. Of all the serious cyber risks facing the average consumer, TikTok isn’t on the top of the list. Most Americans should be more concerned about credit card fraud and password protection than TikTok. All in all, the popular app doesn’t pose any more risk to a user than any other social media sharing application.
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