With over a billion monthly users around the world, TikTok has fascinated many users with a platform that seems to know who they are. But critics say TikTok might know too much.
The popular social media app tracks its users’ likes, dislikes, and personal information, including email addresses, phone numbers, and WiFi networks.
Gizmodo senior technology reporter Thomas Germain showed CBS News how TikTok sweeps user data, including access to user contacts.
“They’re going through all my contacts to see if those people are on TikTok, but who knows what they’re doing with it,” Germain said. “They’re definitely keeping track of everything on there, whether those people are on TikTok or not. And what’s interesting is that my friends didn’t consent to having their phone numbers and emails uploaded to TikTok.”
While other apps also take similar data, TikTok’s parent company is Chinese-owned ByteDance, and US officials have repeatedly warned that the Chinese government could force the company to share the data it collects about its users.
“We have national security concerns,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in November. “They include the possibility that the Chinese government could use it to control the collection of data from millions of users.”
A growing number of states and the US militaryon government-issued devices due to those fears.
John Carlin, who previously headed the Justice Department’s Homeland Security Division, said the data collected can be very valuable.
“We think about the data itself: people have called it the new oil,” Carlin said.
He worries that Chinese officials could also influence the videos shown to Americans.
“It’s not just about the collection or theft of that data,” Carlin said. “He is also manipulating what you see. And the question is for national security professionals, do we want China to determine what we see here in the United States?
Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of public policy for the Americas, said the concern is overblown and “leads to good policy.” He said TikTok collects less data than other social media apps and is also working to move user data to servers in the US, out of China’s reach.
“This would be the firewall,” Beckerman said. “Nothing is bulletproof, but because of the concerns being raised about this, yes, this is bulletproof.”
The Biden administration is investigating TikTok’s plan to host its data in the US as part of a comprehensive, multi-year review into whether the company’s ties to China are a threat to national security. It is unclear when the probe will end.
And more scrutiny is on the way. A top House Republican aide told CBS News that investigating TikTok’s ties to China will be a priority when the GOP takes control of the House in January.