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Practical Techie: Is TikTok a dangerous app?

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Social media users were swamped the past year with recommendations to protect their privacy and get rid of TikTok from their cell phones.

TikTok is a video social networking app owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance.  United States security agencies think it has too many ties to the Chinese government, which is not an anomaly in the centralized economy of the country.

The outgoing Trump administration was adamant in fighting off TikTok alleging that US citizens’ personal data and health care records could be in jeopardy. Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that TikTok was a Chinese Communist Party ploy to penetrate netizen’s personal devices around the world.

In fact, the US Army and Navy branches of services ordered the removal of TikTok from government phones because of supposed cybersecurity threats. There is no word yet on what the incoming Biden administration will do with this issue.

IRONY — The ironic part about this conspiracy theory was that in spite of all the security fears in his administration, Trump himself refused to use the specially secured iPhones supplied to him by the Secret Service, preferring to use a store-bought iPhone 11 provided by his family.  He repeatedly said his calls would not be hacked by foreign spies which in fact, could easily convert any device into a drop-microphone and Bluetooth sniffer. Even more ironic that his administration for evermore harped that China would stop at nothing to steal any and all information that passes through US government channels, although in all truth, Trump personally despised TikTok as a social media platform because so many of his opponents were using it.

SUSPICIONS — Government fears may not be unfounded about supposed design flaws in TikTok’s operating systems. In 2019, TikTok paid out $5.7 million in fines by the Federal Trade Commission to end a claim that Musical.ly, an earlier version of the app, illegally collected data on children under 13 years old in the United States. The Trade Commission said it was a violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule. The mess got messier when later that year, a California college student filed a class-action lawsuit against TikTok, accusing the consortium of creating unauthorized user accounts of anyone that downloaded the app. The case is still pending.

INSIGHTS — It was found that TikTok servers in China had biometric data from persons who uploaded videos into the App. Some tech experts say this is not much unlike Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, except that these companies “guarantee” their data is protected from government interference. Other legal actions against TikTok stated that since 2017, it was allowing underage users on the platform without parental consent. Cybersecurity experts say TikTok’s major sin is using facial recognition technology on its video uploads. Others in the social spheres fare afraid predators and scammers would have easy access to minors using the app. India with its huge user base banned TikTok, but diplomats say the breakaway is all about political tensions between the two countries.

YES OR NO — Lawsuits and international outcry have forced TikTok’s parent company to make security and privacy protection adjustments. It has recruited top information security officers in the United States to deal with operational flaws. It has moved key servers to US locations and put in protections against its own employees accessing private data. Yet, in all reality, it would be impossible for ByteDance to prevent the all-powerful Chinese government from grabbing into its data banks. One example is how China censored videos on TikTok from protesters in Hong Kong.

In essence, it is not necessary to delete the app. Cybernauts just need to be aware of its shortfalls and as all apps, be wary of what information is fed into the platform. Especially, the use given by underaged children.

Author Details
Author Rafael Matos is a veteran journalist, a professor of digital narratives and university mentor. He may be contacted at cccrafael@gmail.com.
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