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TikTok: Dark Side to the Fun App?

An iceberg of data from this app is stored and can be analysed by China. It also gives access to a vast number of people’s phones and their exact location.

TikTok phone application
The legislation, announced by Republican Senator Marco Rubio, would block all transactions from any social media company in or under the influence of China and Russia. Photo: AFP.


(AF) TikTok – one of the current top mobile phone applications – which was launched in September 2016 now has an estimated 800 million users, with over half of them in India alone. 

This app was created by Chinese company Bytedance using technology it acquired from the purchase of musical.ly. Its first incarnation was the Chinese app Douyin, but Bytedance says TikTok – the international version – and Douyin are on different servers due to Chinese government regulations.

Pro-CCP messaging is a way of life in China, but observers have noted an increasing amount of Chinese Communist Party “soft-power” content appearing on TikTok, which is used mostly by young adults to spread short video messages to other users.

TikTok is a ‘fun’ app – but have users paid much consideration to what information they are giving away and where this data will go?

And, similar to the Chinese QQ app that eventually morphed into the multi-function WeChat – is there a likelihood that TikTok will exploit its current popularity in the future?


An Iceberg of Data That is Stored and Analysed

As Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff has noted, in her work on surveillance capitalism, we provide a private invitation that we are aware of – but this is only the tip of the iceberg of data that is stored, analysed and used to predict users’ individual behaviour, and also to manipulate that behaviour.

Psychological models and patterns of human behaviour are created to predict what you, as a consumer or user, are likely to do now and in the future. Google, Facebook and many others have created digital models of most Internet users.

But there is also ‘mystery’ data recording apps such as silverware, which track and transmit vast amounts of personal data that is sold, used, repackaged, and exists in forms now that can even be used to try to change user behaviour, mood or even political outlook.

For instance, the popular Pokemon Go app had deep origins in the CIA, which started Google Earth. This was sold on, and after several steps, it led to crowds of youngsters racing to certain locations, sometimes commercial outlets such as a McDonald’s stores. Now, thanks to Pokemon Go, an entire generation has provided huge datasets that can be manipulated in regard to people’s consumer habits and other outlooks.

In western countries, the slow data drip and slow loss of privacy on a whole is either not noticed by most users, or felt to be benign. Only outliers such as Professor Zuboff, or hackers – the unwashed cyber punks seen as characters in movies, are thought to be combatting the slow digital profiling of populations.

You can either throw your phone away, or accept it, it’s a binary choice. Similarly outlier channels are being throttled on YouTube and Facebook in the drive against ‘fake news’. But corporations are the judges and arbiters of what to censor, unlike China, where that power is securely in government hands.


Tech Dystopia With an Authoritarian Twist

But now we have a new phenomenon – the popular Chinese app TikTok. China has studiously built its own tech dystopia, which mirrors, but is separate to, the world, and has an authoritarian twist. This is what the intellectual Naomi Klein calls ‘McCommunism’. A totalitarian communist regime that has embraced and copied corporatism.

But to what end? Officially, to reach the tertiary stage of socialism needed to pre-empt true utopian communism, it also has “Chinese characteristics”, which leads to loose interpretation.

So TikTok, besides all the funny videos, is creating a massive trove of data from its users, which will, by default, will fall into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.

In Western democracies, intelligence agencies have also created vast data warehouses of citizens’ online and mobile activity under the guise of precautionary defence against terrorism.

China governs online behaviour more overtly, while also analysing it and using it to find dissent. It has with some fortitude denied access to foreign app providers, unless they cave in and allow the CCP access to their servers. Notably, Apple and Yahoo have done this.

CCP officials look on western countries as incredibly naïve, and exploit these opportunities to their maximum potential, while dangling the promises of a potential fortune. So, TikTok, and its parent company Bytedance, live under two sets of rules.

In August 2018, the Beijing Municipal Cultural Market Administrative Law Enforcement Corps issued a warning and administrative penalties for “problems” in the Bytedance start-up unit. Big Brother can march into Bytedance any day and just take over – so the company will play the game and provide the data officials what they want in order to survive, until the final cashing-in phase.

This week, China’s network security officials with national public security organs – the police – announced that during the first quarter of this year they “strengthened the protection of citizens’ “personal information”. Thousands of app providers were investigated and “dealt with”. Most were shut down.

Data analysts Proofpoint said: “The most important thing to understand is that while TikTok shares audio and video you post and allows you to restrict who can see that content, it does request a number of permissions on your device. Most notably, it accesses your location and device information. While our researchers found nothing to indicate malicious activity or that TikTok is violating their privacy policy, people should exercise caution, especially in terms of the content they record and post.”


GPS Tracking by TikTok is Surprising

Tik Tok does the following on your device – access the camera (and can take pictures or video), the microphone (and record sound), the device’s WiFi connection, and the full contact list on the device.

It can determine if the internet is available and access it. It can keep the device turned on and automatically start itself when the device restarts. It can secure detailed information on the user’s location using GPS and other apps that are running.

It can read and write to the device’s storage, install or remove shortcuts, access the flashlight (turn it off and on), and request additional packages for installation.

Proofpoint said: “The GPS tracking is surprising, especially as TikTok videos don’t obviously display location information. TikTok does call out their collection of location information in their privacy policy. In it, they state that you have control over this: ‘You can switch off GPS location information functionality on your mobile device if you do not wish to share GPS information.’ How many users have read that fine print?”

So, by default, at least 800 million people worldwide are providing this information almost directly to the Chinese government. Is that a good idea?

They are also receiving Chinese government soft propaganda. In this age of heightened tensions should regulators deny Chinese firms access to the global internet, as China has denied foreign internet firms permission to operate in their territory?

If TikTok, as a fad, dies – like Vine or many others – Beijing will not delete the mountains of data it has collected.

The ever suspicious Russian authorities found China was hiding spyware in innocent white goods like kettles, but now everyone is handing over their data for free. There is no legal mechanism to get it back, from either side. The scope for manipulation is endless.

And Professor Zuboff points out that it is very easy to pivot these tools from commercial to political outcomes.


  • By Chris Gill


NOTE: The headline for this report was changed from ‘Survival in the age of TikTok’ on Monday May 25, 2020. It was edited to meet new style standards on Sept 15, 2022.


Chris Gill

With over 30 years reporting on China, Gill offers a daily digest of what is happening in the PRC.


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