TikTok: Is it the beginning of the end for Gen Z’s beloved app

Izzy Humphreys for Distilled Post

For anyone under the age of 25, it’s hard to remember a time before we could calm the existential dread with an endless stream of short form video content at any given moment. But for those not blinded by their love of the app, the hugely popular social media platform raises some serious security concerns.

What is TikTok and when did it become so popular?

Most who are familiar with the app will likely have heard mumblings of its beginnings as Musical.ly, which was founded in 2014 and quickly became popular with 13–18-year-olds in China and the US. But some may not be aware of its other origin app, Douyin. Launched by Chinese tech giant ByteDance in 2016, in just one year boasted 100 million users in China and Thailand. TikTok was the result of ByteDance’s purchase of Musical.ly in 2018 and subsequent merge with Douyin (which retains this name in China) and has been growing exponentially ever since.

Like its predecessor, TikTok content was originally heavily centred on lip-syncing and dancing to popular songs. But over the years, and particularly throughout 2020, the app notably transitioned into a wider variety of short-form content, much more similar to that of archived app giant, Vine, and has continued to adapt and evolve ever since.

What are the main concerns?

Almost as soon as TikTok began appearing on nearly every teenager and young adult’s smartphone home page across the world, there was widespread concern regarding privacy and data use. The nature of its algorithm as having the ability to gather information on users faster than any app has ever done before and present a highly tailored “For You Page” immediately set alarm bells ringing in the minds of politicians, parents and more, and it seems those alarm bells have never really stopped.

As early as 2019, India had ordered TikTok be blocked from app stores countrywide, and the US had handed the app a £4.3m fine for hosting content created by underage users. The concerns held by the majority revolve mostly around the amount of user data it gathers, and how they use it. TikTok’s terms of service and privacy policy specify user content and communication, IP addresses, location data and device identifiers as just some examples of the data it collects from users. And there are fears about whether this specific data could be handed over to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) by ByteDance.

Another key concern comes in the form of censorship. TikTok has been accused of censoring videos, spreading misinformation and manipulating the content that reaches certain demographics by influence of the CCP.

Recent developments

These accusations and anxieties only appear to have intensified recently. Last week the European Commission officially ordered its staff to remove the app from their devices. Despite TikTok having consistently denied any allegations of data harvesting, the Commission insists the app poses a cybersecurity threat.

Canada has been one of the first to follow suit and, after an investigation was launched by privacy regulators into TikTok’s use of data last week, has also opted to ban the app on government devices come Tuesday. The US has similarly given the order to remove the app from government-issued phones to protect confidential data.

In response to this, Rishi Sunak has been called to issue the same ban, but it is uncertain whether he will follow suit. It doesn’t seem to be on the Prime Minister’s radar currently, but it might not be long until he is forced to respond to the security concerns of British politicians.

What could be next for the app?

Despite this rapid development in government bans and the widely publicised concerns surrounding the use of user data, TikTok’s popularity doesn’t seem to show any sign of waning with the general public. An average of 650,000 new users join the app daily, and it now has over 3.5 billion downloads and is the sixth most used app in the world behind long-serving apps like Facebook and Instagram.

Whilst apprehensions appear to have intensified recently, TikTok has always maintained that they gather data like any other app and have outwardly labelled these bans as an overreaction. And although it is clear that there are some potentially serious security risks from a government perspective, to the average Joe, perhaps their data being harvested doesn’t outweigh the hours of entertainment the app provides. After all, our data has been collected long before TikTok became a part of the social media repertoire.

Regardless of any of the above, TikTok appears to be so engrained in the social media landscape now that, even if some indisputable, hard evidence came to light that the CCP was illicitly gathering user data with some sinister motive, it would still likely take years for any blanket ban of TikTok to be legally enacted. Fortunately, or unfortunately, TikTok is likely here to stay for some time. Though that doesn’t mean one can’t be aware of the potential risks of using it; as with any other online activity, it is important to be knowledgeable and mindful of how your use of apps like TikTok will affect your digital footprint.