TikTok’s ties to China: Why concerns about your data are here to stay | data protection

TikTok’s ties to China: Why concerns about your data are here to stay | data protection

IIn 2021, Android phone users around the world spent 16.2 trillion minutes on tik tok. And while these millions and millions of users were having a great time watching the clips on the addictive social video app, they also generated a massive amount of data.

TikTok collects information about how you consume its content, from the device you’re using to how long you’ve been watching a post and the categories you’ve liked, and uses that information to fine tune it algorithm For the main summary of the application.

For anyone with a passing knowledge of how platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Google work – or who has read Shoshana Zuboff The era of surveillance capitalism This data collection process is not understood. However, when it comes to TikTok, the question on the minds of many politicians and skeptics is where this data goes. More specifically: does all this information end up being obtained by the Chinese state?

The success of TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance – more than a billion users worldwide – combines with well-established concerns about data-collection practices on social media and concerns about China’s geopolitical ambitions to generate a backdrop of mistrust around the app.

“As the geopolitical situation changes, I think we will see companies like TikTok that will continue to treat it with some caution in the West,” says Alan Woodward, professor of cybersecurity at the University of Surrey.

Distrust has already been expressed in the audit of Regulators and politicians Around the world, they are concerned about how much data TikTok collects and whether Chinese authorities can access it.

In the United States, Donald Trump in August 2020 signed a document executive order Blocking people from downloading the app, followed by a request for TikTok for sale Its business is in the United States.

The commanded On August 6, 2020, he stated: “TikTok automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users, including internet and other network activity information such as location data, browsing and search history. This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party to access personal and proprietary information of Americans.”

The order claimed that this paves the way for China to track the websites of government employees, build extortion profiles, and conduct corporate espionage.

The orders were never carried out due to legal challenges and then Trump left office. Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, Order canceled Instead, it directed the US Department of Commerce to work with other agencies to make recommendations to protect people’s data in the United States from foreign adversaries. The US Committee on Foreign Investment, which scrutinizes business deals with non-US companies, is conducting a security review of TikTok. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called in recent months for tighter regulation and investigation.

In India, where TikTok had more than 200 million users, the government in September 2020 forbidden The platform and dozens of other Chinese apps, after warning that user data is being mined and categorized “by elements hostile to India’s national security and defense”.

In Ireland, the data protection watchdog, which regulates TikTok on behalf of the European Union, in September 2021 I started an investigation to “TikTok’s transfers of personal data to China and TikTok’s compliance with GDPR requirements for transfers of personal data to third countries.”

And the British Parliament Close his TikTok account In August this year after a lobbying campaign by Conservative politicians, including former Conservative Party leader Ian Duncan Smith and recent leadership candidate Tom Tugendhat. In a letter to speakers in the Houses of Commons and Lords, the politicians claimed that “the data security risks associated with the app are significant”. that they as claimed This data from the UK, where the app has an estimated 18 million users, was “routinely transferred to China”.

TikTok data usage was also the subject From several news investigations, including a report by BuzzFeed In June, based on leaked recordings of internal TikTok meetings, he said that employees in China at ByteDance had access to non-public data adjacent to US TikTok users. In one recording, a member of TikTok’s trust and security department said “everything was seen in China,” according to BuzzFeed.

separately , Forbes It reported in October that a China-based team at ByteDance planned to track US citizens by collecting TikTok data.

This week, TikTok made it clear to its European users that in certain circumstances, for example to check the working of algorithms or for security reasons, employees based in China can Access to their data. Earlier this year, it acknowledged similar access to user data in the US.

But experts and analysts differ in their assessments of the TikTok data issue. Just weeks after UK lawmakers expressed concern, the director of Britain’s GCHQ spy agency, Jeremy Fleming, said he would encourage young people to use TikTok. This reflects the view of a British security establishment that the app is not a problem because it does not process data in China.

In July, a US-Australian cybersecurity Internet 2.0 company published a report saying data collection on the app was “excessively intrusive” and reported a connection in the app to a server in the mainland. China, which is operated by Guizhou BaishanCloud Technology Co Ltd. The data that TikTok can access on your phone includes the device’s location, calendar, contacts and other running apps, the report said.

TikTok’s approach to data collection is stricter than WeChat, the Chinese super-app that performs multiple functions from messaging to transfer service, according to David Robinson, co-CEO of Internet 2.0.

“In our opinion, based on detailed analysis, TikTok harvests much more data than WeChat. Their aggressive way of requesting persistent access to contacts after a user has decided not to share contacts is unusual,” he says.

But last year a study conducted by the University of Toronto Citizen Lab found That the app did not exhibit “explicit malicious behavior” in relation to data collection and that its use of ads and user activity trackers “was not exceptional when compared to industry standards.”

TikTok has disputed both accusations that it collects more data than other social media companies, and that Chinese authorities have access to data from its users.

TikTok says its use of data is in line with industry practices and helps the app function properly and operate securely, as well as helping give users more of what they want. A spokesperson adds: “TikTok is not unique in the amount of information it collects.”

The company says its data is not held in China, but in the US – where US user data is routed through cloud infrastructure operated by US company Oracle – and Singapore, and that it plans to start storing European user data in Ireland next year.

“Since the start of transparency reporting in 2019, we have not received any data requests from the Chinese government,” a TikTok spokesperson added.

The company denied it used to US citizens “targeted” Following the Forbes report. In response to a BuzzFeed report, Shanahan said The company has spoken openly about its efforts to limit employee access to US user data and a BuzzFeed News report shows that TikTok is “doing what it said it would do.”

Referring to the Chinese Server Online 2.0 claim, a TikTok spokesperson said that the IP address mentioned in the report is in Singapore and that network traffic does not leave the region.

TikTok insists that the app is standalone. “TikTok is an independent platform, with its own leadership team, including the CEO in Singapore, the COO in the US and the global head of trust and safety based in Ireland,” she says.

Woodward says that even if there is no evidence that TikTok does anything with user data other than what other major social media platforms do, being in the background for China will still be difficult for skeptics.

“The Chinese government’s pervasive and covert approach to surveillance means that those who don’t trust them don’t believe the lack of evidence is evidence that they are not using data from TikTok.”

He says significant skepticism was generated by China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, which states that all organizations and citizens should “support, aid and cooperate” with national intelligence efforts.

“I am sure many companies and individuals feel very strongly that they will never provide data from their customers to the Chinese state, but how can they resist: the law is absolute and the government is not shy about punishing those who fail to comply,” Woodward says.

“It’s not so much about TikTok as it is about the Chinese Communist Party,” said James Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank. “CCP is unscrupulous and opportunistic when it comes to espionage, so mistrust is more than justified.”

“Social media pages are a great source of personal details” for spy agencies, says Lewis, adding that intelligence is now a “big data” game.

For others, data is less of a concern than a platform’s ability to manipulate opinion. The data issue is a “side-show,” says Matt Schrader, a China advisor at the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit organization.

He adds, “It doesn’t concern me as much about the issue of political manipulation on the platform. It’s hard to identify, and there is limited evidence of its existence, but this worries me because the potential for widespread manipulation of political discourse by authorities in Beijing who have no reluctance to use the means Socialize this way.”

As TikTok’s influence grows and geopolitical tensions persist between the US and China, concerns about data and privacy are likely to persist.

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