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Kelly Martin, left, and Hamed Qahri-Saremi, right, are faculty members in the Colorado State University College of Business.
Seeing a spy balloon hovering above your house would be disconcerting, but what about carrying one in your pocket every day?
“A surveillance balloon can look at our physical movements and sensitive strategic locations such as nuclear facilities – and that physical piece is so much more salient to people than the information that can be gathered by their phones,” said Kelly Martin, a Colorado State University professor of marketing who is an expert on data privacy. “But in some ways, apps like TikTok can obtain information that is more potentially violating, sensitive and personal than a surveillance balloon overhead, watching our physical movements.”
Concerns about TikTok are only growing. A bipartisan group of senators have introduced a piece of legislation that would allow the federal government to block technology produced by six countries that have adversarial relationships with the U.S. – among them China, the country where TikTok parent company ByteDance is headquartered.
Federal employees have already been told to delete the app from their government-owned phones, and TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is slated to testify before Congress on March 23 to discuss the company’s privacy and security practices.
But banning the app wouldn’t be a simple matter: It has an estimated 80 million active users in the U.S. alone, a vast majority of whom are between the ages of 16 and 34.
“There’s a huge economy depending on apps like TikTok that draw advertising revenue,” said Hamed Qahri-Saremi, an assistant professor of computer information systems at CSU whose research focuses on social media behaviors. “That’s why the privacy laws aren’t there yet, but increasingly, the public’s opinion is changing.”
Qahri-Saremi and Martin spoke to SOURCE about the controversy surrounding TikTok, the threat of misinformation and whether any of our data online is truly safe.
What is TikTok and how is it different from other social media apps?
TikTok is a short-video sharing platform that allows users to post and share content. Like other social media platforms, it monitors everything from which creators a user follows to the videos they engage with to the location and contact information that’s stored on your phone. Compared to other similar social media apps, TikTok collects more data, some of which unbeknown to the users.
“TikTok’s content is meant to keep you hooked and actively using the app as long as possible,” Martin said. “It infers all sorts of things about you to make sure you continue to engage, and that’s incredibly powerful. It can learn about you and your lifestyles and interests – things you might not even want other people to know about you.”
U.S.-based competitors like Instagram Reels or YouTube Shorts also collect data about their users, but the key distinction is the fact that TikTok is a Chinese company, and that means they play by the Chinese government’s rules and intentions.
“The privacy of the data on TikTok itself is one question, but the other concern is how that data might be used to run malicious campaigns and influence the behavior of the masses,” Qahri-Saremi said. “We have seen how damaging misinformation campaigns can be to our elections, public health, and economy. This is of particular concern about TikTok, because it has the potential to influence a large part of the young population.
“And even if most of what U.S. users post to TikTok are things like dance videos, the question remains: How much influence are you giving to a Chinese company?”
With all this being said, the Chinese government is able to buy data from the firms used by other social media companies like Meta or Twitter. However, Martin said the added concern about TikTok comes from the fact it, unlike its competitors, has a far more direct link to a foreign power.
Why is the TikTok algorithm of such a concern?
One common criticism of TikTok is that it’s addictive, and this is the result of the curated “for you” feed which is aimed at delivering content that will keep users scrolling through the app as long as possible in hopes that they engage with ads.
“But now, the concerns about TikTok aren’t ‘it’s addictive, it’s time-consuming, it’s a dumb way to spend your time.’ Instead, it’s about that threat of misinformation targeting the vulnerable,” Martin said. “A lot of TikTok users are younger, which means they don’t have the life experience yet to determine news credibility, making the threat of misinformation particularly high for these groups.”
And, while the content on China’s version of TikTok is more tightly controlled, the U.S. has the opposite problem – which means that the smartest content is typically not what comes out ahead.
“In the U.S., there’s the concept of social media challenges, people doing crazy things and eating crazy things they shouldn’t be eating because they’re controversial and will attract more attention,” Qahri-Saremi said. “These often come out ahead in the algorithm, and it’s not clear if they create value for the user other than keeping them on the app for longer time.”
Would a ban of TikTok be effective?
For Martin, the controversy surrounding TikTok is part of a larger issue: the extent the government should intervene in order to provide privacy in our digital spaces.
“We live in a world where it’s now impossible for any single customer to manage this by themselves – no matter how much research they do,” Martin said. “We should be having some society-level conversations about whether we see data privacy as an individual choice and problem, or if governments and businesses need to work together to create a better set of regulations for the entire industry.”
Qahri-Saremi agreed, saying that banning one app would not suddenly quell concerns about data privacy as a whole, since virtually every social network collects personal information that could end up in the wrong hands.
“The algorithms are becoming significantly stronger, and our technology changes very fast,” he said. “Our institutions, our laws, our regulations —, they need to adapt.”