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How dangerous is the TikTok app?


Officials from the European Commission and public employees from the United States or Canada are not exactly part of TikTok’s target group. With its virally distributed content, the short video service from the Chinese company ByteDance is especially popular among teenagers who are less concerned with the security interests of governments. However, after the order to remove TikTok from service mobile phones, a general ban on it is once again being considered in Western countries.

The success of TikTok has caught Silicon Valley’s big social media companies off guard. The company Meta, to which Facebook belongs, has been feverishly trying for months to find an answer to the surprising success of China with a similar concept. YouTube also had a hard time countering TikTok’s offensive. In the summer of 2021, the Google platform introduced YouTube Shorts, a format that is very reminiscent of TikTok. Only Twitter, which in its day was a pioneer in the broadcast of live videos with its “Periscope” application, still needs a response.

Apparently 70 percent of young Americans already use TikTok. The rise of the service triggered repeated warnings that user data could leak to China.

German Data Protection Commissioner Ulrich Kelber is also critical of TikTok. As early as June 2021, Kelber had recommended to German ministries and authorities not to use the Chinese provider’s video app on official devices. However, the result of a strict analysis announced by the entities is still pending.

The German Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) also formulates its concerns rather vaguely: “In principle, it is known that many applications transmit data to the respective manufacturers as well as to third parties,” their managers declare.

The verdict for Rüdiger Trost, who works for the German security company WithSecure, is harsher. In an interview with dpa, the expert described a TikTok as “very dangerous”. “TikTok’s algorithm specifically harms people who, according to the Western conception, need special protection,” he asserts. For example, he adds, TikTok deliberately plays videos of people with disabilities less frequently.

Trost also considers the connection with the government of the country of origin problematic: “Events that are not to the liking of the Chinese state are victims of censorship,” he specifies, adding that there are many aspects of TikTok that cannot be reconciled with the Western conception. of human dignity, equality, freedom of expression and the protection of the minimum. “At least as great as the danger of espionage is the risk of selectively influencing public opinion in Western societies. Especially before holding elections”, points out the expert.

TikTok is not willing to let go like you are. Company spokespersons repeatedly state that US user data is processed in the US and that backup servers are located in Singapore. In addition, they ensure that Tiktok is independent of the company ByteDance, based in Beijing.

However, these guarantees have not made much of an impression among US government politicians. Representatives of the Republican Party, in particular, view TikTok as being directly a service of the Chinese Communist Party.

The anti-TikTok stance has already become a tradition among Republicans. In 2020, then-US President Donald Trump threatened a TikTok blanket rule if ByteDance didn’t sell the service to US software company Oracle. Trump saw the national security of the United States threatened, but without going into details. TikTok fought back legally until Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, put an end to the confused takeover plans and suspended his predecessor’s measures.

However, the ban plans in the United States are far from over. In a broad legislative package to guarantee the state budget, the two Republican senators Josh Hawley (Missouri) and Ken Buck (Colorado) included a ban on the application on public service smartphones. However, they are actually aiming for a complete ban on TikTok in the United States and are even supported by representatives of the Democratic Party.

Renowned US security expert Bruce Schneier believes these ban plans are “a dreadful idea.” “The side effects would be unbearable,” Schneier wrote on his blog, arguing that all effective options (to ban TikTok) would ultimately destroy the free Internet as we know it.

There’s no question that TikTok and ByteDance are pretty shady, Schneier wrote. “Both, like most large companies in China, work on behalf of the Chinese government. They collect an extreme amount of information about their users,” he said, noting that TikTok isn’t the only one: “Lots of apps being used are doing the same, including Facebook and Instagram, as well as seemingly innocuous apps that don’t need the data. User data is bought and sold by intermediaries you’ve never heard of and have little qualms about where that data ends up. They have digital files on most of the people in the United States.”

The expert advocated for an effective data protection law in the United States that protects consumers in the long term, “and not just from the application of the week.”

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