Tiktok: How dangerous is the Chinese social media app really?

Tiktok: How dangerous is the Chinese social media app really?

Security experts are divided

The Tiktok logo is seen on a mobile phone.  (icon picture)

The Tiktok logo is seen on a mobile phone. (icon picture)

© Quelle: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Pre

The short video app Tiktok is often more popular with younger people than applications from the major social media networks in the USA. After several governments banned Tiktok from their employees’ work cell phones, many users are wondering whether there is a risk. Security experts are divided.

Berlin. European Commission officials and government workers in the US or Canada are not exactly Tiktok’s core target audience. The short video service from the Chinese ByteDance group, with its viral content, is particularly popular with teenagers who are less concerned about government security concerns. But after the instruction to delete Tiktok from company cell phones, there is again a general ban on the service in western countries.

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Tiktok’s success story so far has caught the big social media companies in Silicon Valley cold. The Facebook group Meta in particular has been trying feverishly for months to find an answer to the surprise success from China with a similar concept. YouTube also initially found it difficult to counter the Tiktok offensive. In the summer of 2021, the Google platform introduced Youtube Shorts, a format that is strongly reminiscent of Tiktok. Only Twitter, which once pioneered live video streaming with “Periscope”, has yet to respond.

Federal data protection officer Kelber is critical of Tiktok

70 percent of young people in the USA are said to already be using Tiktok. With the rise of the service, warning voices have been heard again and again, fearing that user data will be leaked to China.

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The Federal Data Protection Commissioner Ulrich Kelber is also critical of Tiktok. As early as June 2021, the data protection officer recommended that the federal ministries and authorities not use the Chinese provider’s video app on business devices. However, the result of an announced extensive analysis is still pending.

The Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) also formulates its concerns rather vaguely: “Basically, it is known that numerous apps transmit data to the respective manufacturers as well as to third parties.”

Security expert: Tiktok is “very dangerous”

The judgment of Rüdiger Trost, who works for the security company WithSecure, is harder: He assesses Tiktok as “very dangerous”, said the expert from the German Press Agency. “Tiktok’s algorithm deliberately disadvantages individuals who, according to Western understanding, require special protection.” For example, videos of disabled people are played out less frequently on Tiktok.

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Trost also sees the connection to the government of the country of origin as problematic: “Events that the Chinese state does not like fall victim to censorship.” Many things about Tiktok are not in line with the Western understanding of human dignity, equality, freedom of expression and the protection of minorities bring. “The risk of deliberately influencing public opinion in Western societies is at least as great as the risk of espionage. Not least before elections.”

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Tiktok assures data stays in the US

Tiktok does not want to let allegations like these stand in the room. Spokesmen for the group repeatedly claim that the data of US users is processed in the United States and that backup servers are located in Singapore. Tiktok is also independent of ByteDance’s Beijing-based division. But these assurances have not made much of an impression on political Washington. Republican Party officials, in particular, are treating Tiktok as if they were dealing directly with a Chinese Communist Party service.

The anti-Tiktok attitude has a long tradition among Republicans. In 2020, then US President Donald Trump threatened a general ban on Tiktok if ByteDance did not sell the service to the US software company Oracle. Trump saw the national security of the United States threatened, but without going into details. TikTok defended itself legally until Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, stopped the confused takeover plans and conceded the measures taken by his predecessor.

But the ban plans in the USA are far from off the table. In a large package of legislation to secure the state budget, the two Republican Senators Josh Hawley (Missouri) and Ken Buck (Colorado) placed the ban on the service smartphones of government employees. Actually, they are aiming for a complete ban on Tiktok in the USA and are also supported by individual representatives of the Democratic Party.

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US security expert: Tiktok ban would be “a terrible idea”

The renowned US security expert Bruce Schneier considers these ban plans to be “a terrible idea”. “The side effects would be unbearable,” Schneier wrote on his blog. In the end, any effective options (for banning Tiktok) would destroy the free internet as we know it.

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There is no doubt that Tiktok and ByteDance are shady, Schneier wrote. “They work, like most big companies in China, on behalf of the Chinese government. They collect an enormous amount of information about their users.” But Tiktok is not alone: ​​“Many apps you use do the same, including Facebook and Instagram as well as seemingly harmless apps that have no need for the data. Your data is bought and sold by data brokers you’ve never heard of and who have few scruples about where the data ends up. They have digital dossiers on most people in the United States.”

The expert advocated for an effective data protection law in the USA that could protect consumers in the long term, “and not just from the app of the week.”




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