The video sharing app TikTok was first released in 2016. However, in the last year or so its popularity took off, especially with those belonging to the “Gen Z” generation. Today, the app has been downloaded more than a billion times. Unfortunately, with increased use comes increased scrutiny. Because the app is based in China, many concerns have arisen about the data TikTok collects and who the app shares it with. Some lawmakers have even proposed a ban on the app. But is TikTok really dangerous to your data or is xenophobia fueling paranoia? Let’s take a look. While we’re at it, we’ll also share some tips on how to strengthen your TikTok privacy:
- What information does TikTok collect about me?
- Does TikTok sell my data to China?
- Is TikTok dangerous?
- How do I strengthen my TikTok privacy?
What Information Does TikTok Collect About Me?
It’s no secret that most apps, especially social ones, collect user data. Facebook is notorious for this practice. But does TikTok collect your data and, if so, how much? The answer to the first question is yes. The app does collect user data. Now how about what it collects? The answer to that question is a little murkier. On the surface, security experts have found a basic list that includes:
- The videos you watch
- How long you watch for
- Profile info like your name and email address
- Your geo-location (country) and IP address
- The type of device you use
If you give the app permission to access content on your device, it can also collect things like:
- Your exact location
- Your age
- Your phone number
All of the above information is fairly typical of most apps, whether they’re based in China, the US, or any other country. However, this might not be all. Unfortunately, TikTok allegedly uses encoding tools to hide the app’s activity, meaning experts might not be seeing all of what TikTok collects. Does this mean that the app is stealing more than what’s typical? Not necessarily. According to a TikTok spokesperson, the encryption used helps prevent hackers from attacking the app. Ultimately, it’s up to the user to determine whether this knowledge and potential data collection is acceptable or not.
Does TikTok Sell My Data to China?
One of the main concerns about TikTok is that, because the app was created in China, the information it collects is sold to (or demanded from) the Chinese government. But is this concern actually genuine? Recently, the Washington Post reached out to TikTok to ask about this concern. In their response, the spokesperson said the company stores their information in servers in the US and Singapore, but not China. They also said “We have not, and would not, give it to the Chinese government.”
While politicians and some security experts may still claim otherwise, there’s little evidence that TikTok gives its user data to China.
Is TikTok Dangerous?
TikTok has had its fair share of controversies. In 2019, it was fined for violating children’s privacy laws in the United States through another app it acquired (Music.ly). Later that year, an alarm was sounded that a bug in the app possibly allowed hackers to process user data. Finally, it was discovered that the app accessed users’ iPhone clipboards even when it wasn’t running, which the company claimed was an “anti-spam measure.” All three issues have since been addressed. This is fairly typical of any app and doesn’t mean TikTok is inherently shady or conducting illegal activities.
So is TikTok dangerous?
Generally speaking, it depends on user opinion. Does the app collect user information? Absolutely. However, it doesn’t appear that it takes any more than Facebook does (it may actually take less), or uses it in ways that Facebook doesn’t. Of course, this is still a ridiculous and invasive amount of information but if you accept it from one social media service, another isn’t going to affect you much and you’re unlikely to think of the service as “dangerous.” However, different users accept different levels of privacy invasion. If you’re uncomfortable with how much data Facebook collects, then you’ll probably feel the same way about TikTok and should strengthen your TikTok privacy.
And, of course, with any app, there’s always the possibility of a hack breaching your information but the risk doesn’t appear to be higher with TikTok than other apps.
How Do I Strengthen My TikTok Privacy?
Unfortunately, there are few surefire ways to prevent TikTok from collecting your data at all. However, you can reduce some of the information it collects with these tips:
- Permissions: Many apps ask for permission to access different types of content on your devices. For example, contacts, location services, and more. These apps claim that denying them permission might cause the app to work improperly. However, that claim is rarely true. So, in order to protect your privacy, deny TikTok permission to access any unnecessary content on your device. You can adjust these permissions in your device’s settings.
- Profile: When you download the app, TikTok will encourage you to make a profile. This profile will require personal information from you. If you’re uncomfortable with this, you can actually still use the app without a profile. However, with this method, you cannot follow specific creators or upload your own videos. If you still want a profile, you can also use a fake name and throwaway email address to sign up.
- VPN: Using a VPN masks your IP address and can help prevent TikTok from learning your location or assigning data to your real IP address.
- Delete the App: If you’re absolutely not okay with TikTok’s collection and possible use of your data, the only surefire way to stop it is to delete the app altogether.
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