An indepth-technological study into why the conspiracy theory that the Chinese government is spying on TikTok users is false.

By Shreya Mantripragada & Nika Zamani

A multi-billion dollar company, TikTok has infiltrated the lives of billions of individuals worldwide. On August 2, 2018, ByteDance Ltd, a technology company based in China, acquired Musical.ly, TikTok’s predecessor, and merged the two into the biggest application in the world. Ever since, TikTok has gained over 600 million users, and the platform has been a pivotal factor in numerous social movements such as the Black Lives Matter protests and drawing awareness to anti-Asian hate crimes.

However, in an article by Vice that describes the sentiment nationally, many fear that the Chinese-based company ByteDance Ltd could be spying on them using information collected by the app. Although this conspiracy theory has caused numerous countries, such as India, to ban the app, there is no factual evidence that proves that TikTok “spies” on its users. 

Having never downloaded TikTok, Junior Olivia Tsui believes that the surveillance and data-extraction system for TikTok is similar to that of bigger corporations. 

“I think that while TikTok may have some ‘surveillance’ software, it’s literally the same as any other app like Facebook or Instagram: we all know those corporations are taking in information from us all the time,” Tsui said. “I do think a large part of the reason why TikTok was so singled out with this conspiracy was in part due to fear.”

Dissecting the Systems Behind TikTok

According to TikTok’s privacy policy, the app gathers your country location, Internet address, and the type of device you’re using. If you give it permission, the app can also grab your exact location, your phone’s contacts, as well as your age and phone number. With this information, TikTok is not only able to display relevant videos and ads, but also understand who you are as a person, what your family is like, and what you find funny or entertaining. 

In a study from the Washington Post, Patrick Jackson, chief technology officer of privacy company Disconnect, studied TikTok’s software. During his investigation, Jackson noticed that the app sent an abnormal amount of information from devices to computers at the TikTok headquarters. He also observed that the app uses certain measures to encode it’s activity from independent researchers – like Jackson – who want to look under the covers. 

Through much investigation, security researchers have concluded that TikTok’s data collection practice is similar to that of other big technology companies such as Facebook and Instagram. Although the conspiracy theory that the Chinese government “is spying on individuals” has become popular, there is no factual proof and evidence that TikTok is sharing private information with the Chinese government, or accessing abnormal amounts of personal data at all. 

However, unlike Instagram and Facebook which are social media companies based in the United States, TikTok is based in China. According to an article by Vox, the xenophobia towards the Asian community has caused many Americans to marginalize and target TikTok in a negative light, intensifying the popularity of the conspiracy. 

TikTok & MVHS Students

For Junior Roma Hashemi, TikTok simply serves as an entertaining app to pass the time. However, after a few months of having the app, Hashemi realized how much of her time it was wasting and made the decision to delete the app. This decision, however, was unrelated to the emergence of the conspiracy. 

After hearing that TikTok may be using the app to spy, Hashemi states that she didn’t change the way she used the app or feel personally targeted by the claims. She notes that she would see lots of TikToks relating to the matter, but felt that they were incorrect and didn’t care if the theory proved to be true. 

“I don’t think the government is in on anything — that just sounds so silly,” Hashemi said. “[TikTok] might be taking our data, but I think [they’re] using that data to show more ads and make more money. Also, [even if] it’s true, it’s not just me [whose being] targeted, it’s literally everyone [so I feel like it] doesn’t actually matter.”

Junior Vaishnavi Suresh, who only recently downloaded TikTok, also uses the app for entertainment and relaxation purposes, but she believes that these conspiracy theories stem from xenophobia. Nonetheless, she values her personal data and emphasizes that security should be a top priority. 

“I do think that security is an important thing to think about when downloading [any] social media,” Suresh said. “I think that TikTok uses a lot of your data as well, so I understand when people are hesitant to download it because it does use a lot of data, but I think specifically the idea that the Chinese government is spying on every single American citizen is just false.”

Although security professionals like Johnson have tried to investigate the underlying systems of Tik Tok, there is no factual evidence that proves that the Chinese-based company ByteDance Ltd sends TikTok’s user data to the Chinese government. Like the students at MVHS, numerous individuals believe that this conspiracy theory arose because of the widespread fear for the exposure of their personal privacy and the xenophobia towards the Asian community, indicating that not only is it problematic, but it is thoroughly a conspiracy — and just that.

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