The social media app TikTok has been a topic of headlines recently, as the Trump administration has made moves aimed at banning the popular app, or at the very least, putting it under new ownership and management. However, the popular app is just a symptom of a much larger problem, a group of experts tell The Inquisitr, and the ways in which it can potentially be misused are “nothing to scoff at.”
For those not familiar, TikTok is, not unlike YouTube, a platform that allows users to create their own content. Unlike YouTube, however, TikTok’s videos are short — usually less than a minute long — and consist largely of users singing, dancing, lip-syncing, doing various internet “challenges,” or simply reporting on what’s on their mind.
The problem is that the app is also a Chinese spying tool, says Mark Grabowski, Associate professor of communications, specializing in cyber law and ethics, at Adelphi University in New York, who describes it as “Chinese government malware masquerading as a social media app.”
“It goes without saying, you should delete it if it’s on your phone,” he said.
Grabowski noted that TikTok accesses the user’s GPS coordinates, even though it doesn’t provide the location where videos were uploaded. It also has access to the user’s contacts, microphone, camera, and “probably” other data from other apps on the user’s phone.
Further, he says, tinkerers who have looked into the app’s code say that it’s “bloated, allowing it to do things it does not need to do to function, such as downloading and executing remote zip files.”
Further, all the data collected by the app is encrypted in a way that makes it impossible to know what’s being sent back to the company.
While the vast majority of the app’s estimated 37 million American users are teenagers or young adults, other users include Silicon Valley employees, congressional staffers, researchers, journalists, and other people with access, directly or indirectly, to sensitive information that could be beneficial to the Chinese.
Anthony Angelini, a researcher at the UCLA Center for Middle East Development, noted that TikTok “is an emblem of a far bigger problem.” He noted that, in 2019, the U.S. Navy was forced to move parts of its Mediterranean fleet from an Israeli port because the 5G networks there were owned by China, and the Pentagon was concerned that sailors’ information could be stolen.
“Simply by virtue of millions allowing the app to dominate the market, the app becomes a de-facto tool for Chinese government and business alike to use to understand the American people and market,” Angelini said.
Carla Diaz, co-founder of Broadband Search, told The Inquisitr that though President Donald Trump may have personal reasons for wanting the app banned or otherwise brought to heel, “the decision doesn’t fall solely on his opinions and there is a lot that needs to be discussed.”
Angelini and Grabowski offered similar sentiments. Trump’s zeal to get a handle on TikTok, though it may come from bad reasons — such as users of the app seemingly playing a role in limiting the size of the crowd at his Tulsa rally — there are legitimate national security reasons for taking a closer look at the app.
“I… don’t think Trump is doing this out of revenge over his Tulsa rally debacle,” Grabowski said.
Similarly, Angelini noted that India has already banned TikTok and other Chinese apps from the country, so “this isn’t just a wacky Trump thing.”
As for the possibility that Microsoft could take ownership of the app and remove it from Chinese hands, that won’t do much to address the data-collecting issues with the app. Rather, it would only put that data in Microsoft’s hands instead of the Chinese; a situation that Grabowski describes as “taking two steps forward and one step back.”