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Is TikTok a Time Bomb?

TikTok is the social media phenomenon with bigwigs pushing the use of the platform to generate revenue and leads for businesses. Who doesn’t want to be the next big social media influencer and who doesn’t want to do something that will change their business forever? And while I was eager to set up an account, quite a few things made me uninstall the app on my phone… copyright infringement and a specific vague statement in their privacy policy. Others I’ve spoken to and articles available online are more concerned with censorship and national security. Parents also have concerns over their children being exposed to content that is inappropriate or putting them in a vulnerable position to pedifiles or easier targets for sex trafficing. Yikes. And while those are worthy concerns, that’s for a different blog post.

TikTok has made headlines in the news over these issues (and probably others I cannot account for) – topics that many users don’t seem to be concerned about. But my job as a Social Media Expert is to be informed and educate my clients on the best platforms to use for their business. Because if there’s a chance to be the next big influencer, why the heck not? I credit my son – a 15-year-old – for the motivation to dig deeper into the platform and how they are functioning as a company.

TikTok - PixabayFor those who aren’t familiar with TikTok, the app is owned by ByteDance and originally launched as Douyin. The app re-branded as TikTok after merging with another app they own, musical.ly (another controversial app), in 2018. So what’s the big deal? Why should YOU care?

For a lot of people, the fact that ByteDance is a Chinese company is enough to turn them away. While we are used to privacy laws in the United States, Chinese companies do not have the same rights as we do. Shockingly, privacy protection is a relatively new concept for China with current laws requiring consent to collect personal information but allowing their government to demand the information of users be submitted through random inspections of internet service providers. Wowza. Now, in late 2019 a company called Special Counsel was hired to analyze the TikTok app to understand what was happening to user data as well as where it was going. Findings from the Colorado company showed United States user information being stored on servers in Virginia and Singapore. Douglas Brush and his team reported they could not find any way TikTok could send data to China during his analysis.

TikTok’s security risk is such a big deal, lawmakers are attempting to ban the use of the app on United States federal government devices. The TSA and U.S. Army have also banned the app on employee phones.

Ashley R. Smith - Fluent in Social Media and Owner of Social Jargn, a social media marketing company managing your social media so you can manage your business.My concern is a little less “big” and is over TikTok’s Privacy Policy. Specifically, the information they collect automatically including keystroke patterns or rhythms. And you may be saying, “Well, they ALL do that…” and to a point yes. Facebook has no mention in the Privacy Policy about tracking keystroke patterns, but they do disclose how they track your activity within and outside of the app. (Here’s Facebook’s Privacy Policy if you want a deep dive into the information they are collecting and how they use it.) TikTok doesn’t address this when it comes to keystrokes. I do not want to use their app, navigate to my Internet app, then visit my bank website. I don’t know if or how they are following me outside of the app.

To date, I haven’t been able to find anything to clarify if this is in-app only or if keystrokes are watched outside of the app. iPhone users should be wary as the Notes app on Apple devices is continuously under scrutiny for poor security – even for their locked notes. Now, if everyone would just STOP storing sensitive information like social security numbers, bank account information, and passwords in their phone that’d be great. Hackers love these people.

From personal experience, when I had the app installed on my phone I would get something weird on my screen – late at night, say 2 or 3 AM. I would be watching YouTube, living my best quarantine life, and the YouTube app would go semi-transparent; and underneath would be what looked like some strange pop-up. I couldn’t interact with it at all but it weirded me out. I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then I uninstalled TikTok and haven’t had the problem since.

Another annoying thing… I thought I would be super clever and sign up using my telephone number. HOLY SPAM!! I get so many text messages from random people and sketchy links. I block and report each one but UUUUUGH. Dumb. And I still haven’t reinstalled the app to remove my account because… well, confused about the security! I even installed a virus scanner on my phone just in case.

For artists and content creators the issue has become more personal. TikTok is currently in the beginning stages of compensating music artists for their tracks being used on the platform in videos published by TikTok users. While TikTok’s policy does not allow content that infringes on copyright, that doesn’t mean everyone is caught. My son reported a favorite YouTuber had clips of his videos “stolen” then uploaded to the TikTok platform without his consent. Or pay. TikTok has made agreements with some artists for their music, but that doesn’t address the larger problem… and doesn’t mean they’re being paid fairly. Perhaps a legal battle would light a fire for their executives to figure something out sooner rather than later – it is estimated that more than half of the music on the app is unlicensed.

Some good news was released this week however – Kevin Mayer, former Chairman of the Walt Disney Direct-to-Consumer and International has taken the role of CEO for TikTok and COO for ByteDance.  He’s essentially the man who launched Disney+ into our homes (thanks for that, by the way!). Hopefully, the United States tie will help improve TikTok’s current faults.

Personally, I won’t keep the app on my primary device until the security issues are addressed. I have a second phone for emergencies (like a phone drop or a total hardware or software crash) and will probably download it on that device – where my main accounts aren’t used and away from my client’s data. I will say this about TikTok… Instagram and Facebook really need to mimic their video editing tools. TikTok is on point in this area and incredibly impressive.