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The Indian Government announced Monday evening that they were banning 59 apps from use. TikTok was the first app named on the lengthy list, raising global concern. TikTok, owned and operated by the Chinese company ByteDance, recently came under fire for its extreme data collection that has many tech officials worried. So why exactly was TikTok banned?
The decision came after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in hand-to-hand combat with Chinese troops in the first deadly clash over the highly disputed Himalayan border in over 45 years. The event sparked concern over whether the Chinese government has access to the extensive network of data. India is the second largest internet market in the world and is considered TikTok’s largest overseas market, making it a significant loss for the app if the current ban holds.
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In an update posted to TikTok India’s Twitter, the company said “TikTok continues to comply with all data privacy and security requirements under Indian law and has not shared any information of our users in India with any foreign government, including the Chinese Government.”
— TikTok India (@TikTok_IN) June 30, 2020
TikTok’s abrupt rise to popularity started in 2018 when they merged with Musical.ly and nearly tripled their user base in just one year. Their advanced content algorithm allows content from any user to reach the “For You Page” and achieve viral status. The company claims this algorithm requires an extensive data collection. However, some remain extremely skeptical, citing comparisons to other social media sites. This skepticism is the main factor in India that had TikTok banned.
This isn’t the first time TikTok has been under fire or called to question for data collection. In the U.S. TikTok “agreed to pay $5.7 million to settle allegations that it illegally collected personal information from children under the age of 13, such as names, email addresses and their location”, according to an article by CNN in February 2019. There have been small pushes by legislatures and government officials to get TikTok banned across the country, however, no attempt has gained enough traction in the U.S.
Why Should We Be Concerned?
In a viral tweet, Dan Okopnyi outlined a Reddit user’s reverse engineering of TikTok and explained why we should be concerned. TikTok banned in India could be the first domino in a global cascade. He described TikTok as a “data collection service that is thinly-veiled as a social network.”
A guy on reddit reversed engineered #TikTok
Here’s what he found on the data it collects on you
It’s far worse than just stealing what’s on your clipboard: pic.twitter.com/oqaQyYDXT2
— Dan Okopnyi 🇺🇦 (@d1rtydan) June 28, 2020
He went on to claim if there is an application programming interface (API) that allows them to gather information on you, your contacts, your device, or other things, they’re using it.
Here’s a list of other quotes and notable findings revealed by Okopnyi:
- They’re able to access your phone’s hardware, other apps you’ve installed, GPS pinging, and can set up a local proxy server on your device for “transcoding media”
- “They have several different protections in place to prevent you from reversing or debugging the app as well. App behavior changes slightly if they know you’re trying to figure out what they’re doing.”
- “They provide users with a taste of “virality” to entice them to stay on the platform. Your first TikTok post will likely garner quite a bit of likes, regardless of how good it is.”
- “They don’t want you to know how much information they’re collecting on you … They encrypt all of the analytics requests with an algorithm that changes with every update (at the very least the keys change) just so you can’t see what they’re doing.”
- Other apps don’t collect nearly as much data as TikTok does. “It’s like comparing a cup of water to the ocean – they just don’t compare.”
If you are confused, this video explains TikTok’s data collection compared with other apps.
What is the TikTok Algorithm?
Tiktok differs from other social media like Instagram and Facebook because most of the views are driven by a recommended algorithm instead of your activity. This leads to view counts that can dramatically vary based on nuances in the algorithm. This highly confidential algorithm is made up of manual and automated components.
The manual component
When TikToks accumulate enough views, the TikTok staff manually reviews them to determine if there are any “risks” involved. Risks can include any number of factors such as lewd or derogatory content. Many people suspected this part of the process carried political influence, particularly concerning the Chinese Government. TikTok, however, said, “Our moderation decisions are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government. TikTok does not remove or demote videos due to the presence of Hong Kong protest content, including activists.” This is one frequent issue governments point to when trying to have TikTok banned.
The automated component
TikToks are also automatically sorted through a complex automated process that includes…
- Discrete fields: hashtags, sounds and filters
- Natural language processing: analyzes text and audio in the video
- Computer vision: identifies the type of content in the video
- The algorithm also initially only shows a TikTok to a small audience. It’s suspected if the video gets likes from more than 10% of viewers it’s shown to progressively larger audiences.
TikTok’s algorithm ensures users’ For You Pages have content that is relevant to what they have previously engaged with. This means certain types of content are more likely than others to reach large audiences. No one has been able to crack the code to exactly how TikTok’s algorithm works just yet, but general trends have been observed. Using the right hashtags, short captions, and popular music all increase a TikTok’s chances of being featured on the For You Page.
How to Use TikTok Safely
Although uncertainties and limited information surround TikTok’s algorithm and data collection, there have been safer approaches towards using the app. Though most of them are geared towards safeguarding against other users, they’ll add more protection than your account had before. Here are some of those tips:
Make sure Tweens use their real age when they create an account
Due to past run-ins with governments across the world, TikTok refrains from collecting as much data from underage users as they do with adults. They also limit the younger viewers’ access to TikToks that could contain unsettling content.
Make your account private
If you have a TikTok account, you can change your profile setting to private. This will ensure users that aren’t following you can’t view videos you post. It will also require you to accept a follower before they can access your page. This is especially important for children on the app. Select Privacy and Safety, and then click on the switch for “Private Account”.
Commenting on TikToks can expose your profile to other users who previously would not have known to track you down. It can also invite spammers to send you direct messages or leave comments on your videos.
The less time you spend on the app, the less data and tracking you expose yourself to. You’re able to set time limits on usage in the Family Pairing feature. Click on “Digital Wellbeing” next to the icon of the umbrella. This will allow you to manage “Screen Time Management”, “Restricted Mode”, and “Family Pairing”. Setting limits is an easy way to separate yourself from the extremely addictive app.
Although this one is vague it should go without saying. Using an app that has been accused of data manipulation and extensive surveillance should have you on guard. Don’t upload any content you wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with the world and try not to spill your life secrets to your friends through direct messages. The more cautiously you approach TikTok, the safer it will be.