TikTok’s Privacy Concerns Aren’t Going Away

It’s not just government hype

Key Takeaways

  • TikTok was granted yet another reprieve to find an American buyer, further stalling President Trump’s proposed ban of the app. 
  • Experts say the executive ban was not only warranted but highlighted the privacy concerns that TikTok users need to be aware of. 
  • Ultimately, individuals make their own privacy choices, not the government.
TikTok logo displayed on a smart phone.

It looks like President Donald Trump’s August executive order to ban TikTok over security concerns won’t happen any time soon. However, cybersecurity experts warn that we should still be concerned about the viral app. 

TikTok was granted a two-week reprieve by the U.S. government last week to find an American buyer for the Chinese-based app, further extending its deadline to the ban Trump initially gave months ago.

Even though there was talk of a ban, it’s almost as if the administration has all but forgotten about the viral app. However, Trump’s executive order did bring about awareness of TikTok’s many security issues and the more significant issue of how Americans handle their own privacy. 

"[TikTok] definitely brought attention to people that when you start getting an app, you need to read the Terms and Conditions," said Guy Garrett, the assistant director at the University of West Florida’s Center for Cyber Security, in a phone interview. 

TikTok’s Privacy Issues 

TikTok’s privacy issues lie in plain sight but are often overlooked: in the Terms and Conditions agreement when you download the app. Garrett said it’s extremely common for people to skip through reading this altogether.

"They know that you don't read the terms and conditions," he said. "With TikTok, the problem is people aren’t aware of what they got control of."

Someone wearing glasses and looking closely at their mobile phone.

According to the Wall Street Journal, when you opt to download TikTok, the app can collect things like your GPS position, phone and social network contacts, personal information like your age and phone number, and the type of device you're using, and even your payment information.

"TikTok is accessing stuff that doesn't make sense," Garrett said. "There’s no way an app that simple should be getting that kind of information."

Garrett said on the political side of the spectrum that TikTok being a Chinese-based app is a valid concern for the federal government and cybersecurity experts and that Trump's initial ban wasn't overhyped. 

"Your privacy is totally in your control; the question is how much information do you want to share."

"As far as banning the application in the government, absolutely it was warranted, and it should have been done," he said.

TikTok has made it clear that it will fight to stay in Americans' phones, and while it does collect information, it doesn't give it to the Chinese government. 

“Protecting the privacy of our users' data is of the utmost importance to TikTok," TikTok spokeswoman Ashley Nash-Hahn, told the Washington Post. "TikTok collects much less U.S. user information than many of the companies in our space and stores it in the U.S. and Singapore. We have not, and would not, give it to the Chinese government."

The Future of TikTok

President-Elect Joe Biden has called the app a "matter of genuine concern," according to CBS News, so even though the app is in the clear for now, the federal government’s concerns over the app are far from over. 

Garrett said it’s essential that the next administration is aware of the cybersecurity issues over TikTok when it comes to its relations with China. India even banned the app back in June due to Chinese ownership. 

However, Garrett said users should be genuinely concerned and aware of what TikTok has access to and how its privacy is affected on a much more individual scale. 

A paper listing sample website terms and conditions with a pen and a pair of glasses sitting on top of it.

And it's not just TikTok—although the app is at the center of controversy right now over privacy issues, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have also had their fair share of privacy mishaps. Once again, the data these companies collect are listed in their Terms and Conditions, but users still choose to download and use these platforms.

"Privacy is all about if you want the right to be let alone, you have to exercise that right, and there are a lot of young people out there that just don't want to go through the trouble of what choice they’re making until it's too late," Garrett said. 

Cybersecurity experts like Garrett implore people to actually read into the Terms and Conditions the next time they download an app to see what they're getting into. However, Garrett said that, ultimately, the choice is yours regarding how you handle your privacy. 

"What we're hoping comes out of this thing is an awareness that you have to be in charge of your privacy," he said. "Your privacy is totally in your control; the question is how much information do you want to share."