So far, the arguments to ban TikTok are more rooted in fears than actual evidence. The best thing that could come of this scare is that Congress finally realizes we need privacy rules and guardrails for kids across all apps — not just the ones with Chinese owners.
To decide what’s right for your family, you have to weigh what’s the worst that could happen if the Chinese government did get your TikTok data. I can help you understand your risk. And whatever you decide, you should take steps to protect your data — see below for some actionable advice.
What’s all the fuss about?
TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance. In China, the government censors the internet and uses online surveillance to control people. The government also has a lot of control over how internet companies operate.
The American part of TikTok has been caught doing some things that hardly inspire trust, including spying on journalists (which it owned up to), suppressing Black creators (which it called a bug) and allowing employees based in China to access nonpublic information about American users (which it says is now tightly controlled).
All of that has made TikTok a political target. It’s currently negotiating security practices with the Biden administration, which has the power to force it to sell to an American owner. In December, Congress banned TikTok on all federal devices, and more than two dozen states have introduced similar bans on government devices.
Now there’s a bipartisan push to ban it entirely. Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) on Thursday called on Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced a bill to ban the app entirely in the United States. He called TikTok “a major security and privacy concern for every American, especially kids.”
I don’t take that lightly. Many politicians who want to ban TikTok aren’t its users. But for millions of Americans — particularly Gen Z — TikTok is a hugely important venue for self-expression and exploration. Banning it could ignite intergenerational warfare.
So there had better be a really good reason to delete TikTok. Decisions about personal tech should be grounded in proof, not politics. Let’s zoom in on the two biggest concerns.
Concern 1: TikTok is giving your data to the Chinese government
Hawley says that “if you’ve got TikTok on your phone, it is reading your emails, it is looking at your photos, it is accessing your contact list, and it is making that information available to the Chinese Communist Party, period.”
Yes, TikTok gathers a lot of data. I made the list above with the help of Disconnect, a privacy software company that first helped me follow TikTok’s data trail in 2020. It found TikTok has followed Facebook’s lead and ratcheted up how much data it collects, particularly including tracking webpages you visit outside of TikTok.
But we did not find evidence that TikTok reads your emails, as Hawley said. Facebook still collects more data than TikTok, including gathering your precise location and everything else you put in your profile. Same goes for Google, which tries to record a history of where you go and all the pages you visit in its Chrome Web browser.
So does the Chinese government have access to any of what TikTok collects?
TikTok says it has not shared American user data with the Chinese government, nor would it do so if asked. Since last summer, it says it has routed all U.S. data to cloud services run by Oracle, one of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley.
But parent company ByteDance is still compelled to comply with requests for user data under Chinese law, and it’s not clear how ByteDance would be able to resist. Oracle declined to comment on the record about how it keeps the government out.
“Once the data is collected we have no idea where it goes for sure,” says Patrick Jackson, Disconnect’s chief technology officer. “People jump to the worst-case scenario and maybe it’s healthy to think about the worst things that could happen.”
Judge for yourself when TikTok’s CEO testifies in front of Congress in March. Even without smoking-gun evidence, I understand some will think a Chinese social media company is inherently less trustworthy than an American company.
If that’s your view, security experts say you should still weigh any online risk based on your own personal exposure.
So if you’re a government worker, Chinese citizen overseas or other high-profile person, then your data getting into the government hands could be catastrophic and you should keep away. Similarly, some journalists I respect don’t keep TikTok on their phones because we know both the motive and capability is there for the company to abuse its access. (TikTok says the employees who tracked journalists went rogue and have been fired.)
For the average person, however, it’s harder to see the individual risk for the data we know TikTok is collecting. Chinese officials aren’t likely interested in who your friends are, what you watch or who you meet with. China’s government has less power over you in the U.S., unless you have family or business interests back in China.
This might not make you feel any better, but China has been amassing data about Americans long before TikTok. China has been implicated in major personal data breaches, including hacks on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the one on Equifax that impacted nearly half of all Americans. Worse, China could also buy data about us from the data-broker industry that tracks and sells our personal information to companies around the world. So could any other government or company.
In that sense, deleting TikTok alone is like putting your pinkie finger in a very large leak.
Concern 2: The Chinese government decides what you see on TikTok
What if TikTok is a Chinese tool to spread its own propaganda?
Wrote Bennet in his letter to Apple and Google: The Chinese Communist Party “could compel TikTok, via ByteDance, to use its influence to advance Chinese government interests, for example, by tweaking its algorithm to present Americans content to undermine U.S. democratic institutions or muffle criticisms of CCP policy.”
The very thing that makes TikTok so popular — the “For You” algorithm that personalizes a different collection of videos for each user — makes it difficult to spot how its algorithms might be tilting the stage.
I searched TikTok for Shen Yun, an American dance performance group that is highly critical of the Communist Party. TikTok’s first suggested search term was “shen yun dance cult.” That does echo language the Chinese government has used to describe the Falun Gong movement linked to the dance troupe.
TikTok said its search functionality is powered by data from other searches and popular hashtags. It pointed out that in a Google search, “dance cult” also comes up as a suggestion.
To allay some of these concerns, TikTok has proposed that its content recommendation and moderation systems will be subject to review by Oracle and an additional independent third-party inspector.
But what if the real goal is more nefarious: to make Americans dumber? Critics including Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) have noted differences between the U.S. TikTok app and its Chinese equivalent, called Douyin. It limits users under 14 years old to 40 minutes per day, and emphasizes topics such as science in compliance with Chinese regulations to reduce time teenagers spend on social media and gaming.
I’ve not been able to find a comprehensive analysis of TikTok’s American video trends compared with Douyin’s, but I do see U.S. accounts such as The Science Channel rack up more than 50 million views for a video.
“I have advocated for new protections to ensure that social media services are not exploiting American children,” Warner said in a statement. “Until Congress moves forward with these safeguards, I think families need to have a real conversation about whether the risks to your data are worth having the app on your devices.”
If that’s your concern, TikTok is hardly the only exploitative app you might want to delete.
If any of the above just sounds too risky for you, it’s time to delete TikTok. When you do, don’t just remove the app — also delete your account. Go to Settings → Account → Deactivate or delete account.
For everyone else, there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure:
- Do not give TikTok access to your contacts, some of the most intimate information on your phone. Tap Settings → Privacy → Sync Contacts and Facebook Friends and make sure both are switched off. If you’ve previously shared them, you can remove them here, too.
- Set up a new and more anonymous TikTok account. Use a throwaway email address and don’t link it to your phone.
- Block TikTok’s ability to track you outside of its app. On iOS and Android, say no when the app asks for permission to track you — or, even better, adjust the setting so no apps can do so. To further limit tracking, use an app such as Disconnect’s Do Not Track Kids, which blocks all trackers from reporting back to TikTok.
- Use TikTok without an account. You can still watch TikTok videos on the open Web, though you won’t be able to follow specific accounts or upload videos of your own. That also won’t entirely stop TikTok from trying to collect data about you.
Assume a defensive posture. Just like Facebook and other apps, TikTok’s main goals are to gobble up your data and keep you hooked — not help you get better informed.