Lotus Ruan, who has conducted technical analysis on Chinese apps such as WeChat and is currently a senior researcher at the Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab, echoes this sentiment: “With the growth of TikTok and the globalization of Chinese apps. [people] You are looking at the Chinese application under a microscope. As a result, risks are often exaggerated.
The actual differences between these apps and the US apps are very small, Ruan says. In the year In 2021, Tik Tok’s technical review conducted by Ruan Associates reported that it was “not seen.” [TikTok or its Chinese version Douyin] Collecting contact details, recording and sending photos, audio, videos or geographic locations without user consent. (On the other hand, WeChat has been found to monitor chats even in accounts not registered in China.)
“We tend to secure everything now, it’s important, but we have to be very careful when we apply the national security framework to data,” Ruan said. Concerns about what these apps might be doing should be based on empirical technical research, rather than speculation and misunderstanding, she says.
Even so, journalists and those in policy circles should keep a close eye on how these apps process their data, especially paying attention to whether any user data is being sent back to China.
As Xu told me, there are legitimate national security concerns about what happens to US user data once it’s inside China’s borders. While China is developing a legal framework to protect personal data, it focuses on holding private companies accountable rather than restricting what information the government can get from companies or what it can do with that information.
There are things that companies like ByteDance that own TikTok can do to address the concerns. For years, ByteDance has promised to store and process US data only in the US, but there are still reports of company engineers in China misusing US user data. “There are a few things they said they would do but didn’t. I think that’s the problem,” Xu says. Implementing that user data segregation and third-party auditing to ensure it is done – would be the first step.
The political narrative surrounding Tik Tok as a national security threat may drive some users away – if Tik Tok isn’t useful for government employees, shouldn’t I be concerned and stay away from it? But until the US government implements a blanket ban on Tik Tok, I believe many others will continue to use it.
The truth is, at the end of the day, very few American users are actively thinking about which country an app comes from. Most people simply weigh the pros and cons: Are Goofy videos entertaining enough to justify the risks of exposing their data to companies and government actors?