Government officials in the EU and West are ramping up their efforts to curb the potential risks associated with the ultra-popular video platform TikTok. Cybersecurity experts and officials have put the app under increased scrutiny in the last few months as fears increase about its data-harvesting practices and potential to spread Chinese propaganda.
Governments in the EU, US, and Canada have decided to curb TikTok usage on official devices in an attempt to protect national security. Recent reports have suggested the app harvests more data from people’s phones than it lets on, and ByteDance employees have full access to all of this information.
Data collection spurred the FTC commissioner to urge app stores to remove TikTok in 2022 for violating the app stores’ policies by logging device MAC addresses. While neither Google nor Apple has responded to the request, EU, US, and Canadian officials have decided to ban the app on government employees’ work devices. This includes any personal devices they also happen to use for work.
How Did TikTok Get Its Bad Reputation?
Despite moving its headquarters to Singapore in 2020 and claiming to distance itself from Chinese interests, TikTok parent company ByteDance is still based in China and, like any other Chinese company, has to freely share information with the CCP. This is a crucial detail because several governments, including India, the UK, and Ireland (which also serves as the EU’s data protection watchdog) have expressed concerns over the app’s transfer of data to China.
Authorities’ concerns are largely centered around China’s geo-political aspirations. Including its ability to gather copious amounts of information on Western citizens for purposes such as spreading propaganda. TikTok’s past transgressions haven’t allayed any of these fears either.
In December 2022, the company admitted it had used its app to spy on US journalists in an attempt to track down their sources in a leak investigation. It has since fired at least four staff involved in that incident, which is like putting a band-aid on a broken bone. If that wasn’t enough, journalists found the app was censoring videos that show or talk about the protests in Hong Kong. The app also banned foreign content in Russia when it invaded Ukraine.
TikTok has since admitted employees based in China can see US and European citizens’ data.
If the company can use its power to invade journalists’ privacy and amend its content to please Beijing, then governments’ fears might not be too far fetched.
EU and European Parliament Bans TikTok
The European Union’s executive branch temporarily banned TikTok from phones used by employees as a cybersecurity measure at the end of February. It didn’t provide any additional details on the ban or how long it will last.
While this would have been big enough news on its own, only a week later, the European Commission’s Corporate Management Board suspended TikTok on staff devices permanently. The European parliament has now also banned TikTok.
This includes work devices and personal devices they use for any work purposes as well. Employees now have until March 15 to delete TikTok in order to comply with the ruling. This follows similar decisions in the US, where concerns about the use of TikTok have reached an all-time high across the states.
TikTok Bid Farewell by US Congress
By the start of February, at least half of the 50 states had enacted TikTok bans on government-issued devices, including those used by agencies, employees, and contractors. The White House then announced it will enact a similar ban for all federal agencies citing security concerns.
The Office of Management and Budget calls this a “critical step forward in addressing the risks presented by the app to sensitive government data.” All federal government agencies now have a month to delete the app from their devices and from any personal devices used for work. This comes after Donald Trump signed an executive order in 2020 to ban TikTok entirely, an order reversed by President Biden soon after taking over.
Some federal agencies, including Homeland Security and the Defence Department have had similar rules for employees for a while now. Based on intelligence from the Pentagon, the US military banned TikTok back in 2020, stating the app is considered “a cyber threat.” A number of US universities have also started banning the app on campus networks.
Canada Follows Suit on TikTok Ban
Just a few days after the European Commission announced its ban, Canada sent out a statement saying it will mirror the decision for its own government. A spokesperson revealed this decision reflects a review by Canada’s chief information officer. The conclusion is that TikTok presents an “unacceptable level of risk to privacy and security.”
I suspect that as government takes the significant step of telling all federal employees that they can no longer use TikTok on their work phones, many Canadians from business to private individuals will reflect on the security of their own data and perhaps make choices.Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister
PM Justin Trudeau has indicated these moves may spur regular citizens to also remove the app from their lives. While Canada still considers using the app a personal choice, some lawmakers in the US feel it shouldn’t be a choice at all.
Will TikTok Ever Be Banned at a National Level?
Some are overjoyed while others are concerned about a new bi-partisan bill introduced by over ten senators which could lead to a total TikTok ban across the US. The Biden administration-backed legislation aims to increase the government’s powers to restrict any foreign-based technology that “poses a risk to national security.” Some fear this is a stepping stone to blocking TikTok (and other apps) entirely.
While the FCC made some compelling arguments to get app stores to remove the app, it’s actually quite difficult to ban TikTok outside of government institutions. Even if app stores decide to ban the app (which at this stage looks unlikely), TikTok can just move to third-party app stores or set up app downloads directly on its own website.
Workplaces could also follow in the government’s footsteps by banning the app on work devices, but beyond that, it’s nearly impossible to force everyone to stop using an app.
Should You Keep Using TikTok?
TikTok has been trying to improve its image by claiming it complies with privacy legislation like the EU’s GDPR. It has also made some structural changes, like moving its data collection for US citizens to servers in the US. Unfortunately, these efforts haven’t mended its standing with senior officials. It hasn’t worked to negate the concern over its threat to privacy either.
The thing is, though, none of the changes TikTok made so far seem to have had a marked effect on the app’s core user base. TikTok is still an immensely popular app, especially among millennials and Gen Z. None of the scandals surrounding the company seems to have had a noticeable impact on its general usage numbers. Which begs the question: should you delete TikTok?
How you protect your privacy is entirely up to you. If you value your privacy then deleting TikTok is a necessity. Whether it’s worse than other data-hungry platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and any of Google’s products is hard to say. Plenty of damning reports indicate the app engages in a deep level of privacy violation though.
You can delete your TikTok account permanently to improve your privacy, but don’t just leave it at that. This is a good time to review your digital habits and improve your overall privacy and security. Start by reviewing your digital hygiene, delete apps you don’t use, strengthen your login methods, and use CyberGhost VPN to protect your internet traffic using strong encryption.