TikTok, a social media app owned by Chinese company ByteDance, has come under a great deal of scrutiny during the last several years, in part due to its provocative content, but also because of its data collection practices.
The app collects data such as names, ages, phone numbers, emails, IP addresses, locations, user interests, and more. This information is collected in a couple of ways: users either provide it directly to TikTok when they create their accounts and interact with certain types of videos, or the data is obtained through use of a pixel.
A pixel is essentially a tracker embedded into the code of a website, used to collect an array of data. It is used to collect information such as likes, dislikes, online behaviors, web activity, IP addresses, purchases and more. TikTok can then relay the information to advertisers to help them better target potential consumers.
If that sounds invasive, that is because it is. If it sounds illegal, we can assure you it is not.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook, has been doing it for years. So has Google. In fact, smaller local businesses do it, too, as an effort to promote their business. We know, because we help them do it.
TikTok’s data collection practices are not different from those of any other social media platform. Truth be told, neither is the content.
Parents across the country are alarmed by the content available on TikTok. The platform features user-generated content in the form of 15-seconds-or-fewer video snippets. Some of the popular and more innocent videos feature dances, singing and awkward skits. But those are not the only videos available on the app.
TikTok videos also include various “challenges” meant to generate user engagement. One such challenge, called the “blackout challenge,” encourages users to hold their breath until they pass out due to a lack of oxygen. TikTok is facing multiple wrongful death lawsuits as a result of that challenge.
We find the challenge and the results to be horrifying, but find it important to point out, such challenges are not unique to TikTok.
Do we all remember the “Tide Pod Challenge?” It was through Tumblr, YouTube and Twitter that teens were encouraged to eat laundry detergent pods. The challenge was so popular the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission felt the need to issue a statement on Twitter saying simply, “Please don’t eat laundry pods.”
In addition to these “challenges,” parents are also concerned about the availability of sexually explicit content; racist and homophobic content; content which promotes extremist ideals and propaganda; content that leads to poor body image and depression; normalization of risk-taking behaviors; and the potential the app poses for cyberbullying and exclusion.
None of those concerns is unique to TikTok.
What is unique to TikTok is the China-based company that owns it, and the fear data gathered will be used for espionage and that the app will serve as a means to deliver propaganda.
Evan Greer, director of the nonprofit Fight for Future acknowledges the potential for the abuse of privacy exists, but also points out the “U.S. government, and many other governments, already abuse and exploit the data collected by every other U.S. based tech company with the same data-harvesting business practices.”
She believes, “If policy makers want to protect Americans from surveillance, they should advocate for a basic privacy law that bans all companies from collecting sensitive data about us in the first place, rather than engaging in what amounts to xenophobic showboating and does exactly nothing to protect anyone.”
TikTok is not the only problem here. Social media as a whole is the problem.
For two decades, we have allowed social media to invade our privacy and do as companies please with the data they collect. We have allowed it to influence users of every age group and every political affiliation. It is used to spread fear, “fake news,” hatred and propaganda, and it has done so without the help of the Chinese government.
As the U.S. government moves to ban TikTok from government devices and talks of banning the app nationwide continue to grow, we urge our readers to keep this in mind:
Right now, the decision to use or not use TikTok is our own to make, as it should be. So is the decision as to whether to let Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Truth Social or any number of available social media apps into our life.
Those platforms will all track our personal information and attempt to influence users as they see fit.
It is up to all of us to decide whether the benefits of connectivity and entertainment outweigh the dangers all of these platforms pose.
This piece was written by a member of the Editorial Board of our sister newspaper the Daily Star in Oneonta, New York.
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