Thursday, November 03, 2022

Why TikTok is not your friend

Anyone who has read any of these posts will know that I don't do TikTok (or Facebook or Twitter, and rarely YouTube). Indeed, I have a very healthy skepticism about any of these social media platforms, sometimes based on known facts, and sometimes based on a gut feeling that they are either evil or at least a potential gateway to evil.

TikTok is the newest of these platforms, and ridiculously popular nowadays, particularly among the influential youth and Gen Zs of the world. With over a billion users, TikTok is the fastest-growing audience of any social media platform, and was accessed more times than even Google last year. It's not all about viral dance routines and cute cat videos, though. Increasingly, people are getting their news through TikTok; people search for new apartments on TikTok (I kid you not). For a certain subset of people, it is the "everything app", and ubiquitous and pervasive in their lives.

segment on CBC's The Current (starting at 22:48 minutes into the audio, until about minute 45) has gone a long way towards validating my skepticism. A reporter for Forbes magazine has found evidence that TikTok, and its Chinese parent company ByteDance, is being used to monitor the location of certain US citizens (the reporter was not at liberty to reveal exactly who or why), not using GPS, but using the user's IP address, which is a slightly less accurate method of determining location. Like many apps, this is just one of the many elements of data that users are sharing with the owners of the app, largely unbeknown to most users, and the whole picture can be detailed enough to provide ByteDance (and thereby the Chinese government) with some pretty sensitive information ("data espionage").

This all comes as US security agencies are already looking into whether TikTok represents a security threat to the USA. TikTok is not as transparent as most other major social media platforms in that it does not make public which videos or content is trending countrywide or worldwide, and which are the most popular and most-viewed videos. There is therefore some concern that ByteDance, through TikTok, may be spreading misinformation. We really don't know what the world is watching on TikTok.

Global Witness has carried out some studies to assess TikTok's ability to weed out political misinformation, by deliberately uploading political falsehoods and misleading content and checking to what extent TikTok's algorithms was able to spot and delete them. Turns out the answer is hardly at all. 90% of the misleading advertising was accepted by TikTok, as compared to Facebook (which did much better) and YouTube (which was able to spot almost all of the spurious content). None of their process is publicly available in an "ad library" like Facebook and Google publishes.

Now, admittedly, TikTok is a much younger platform than Facebook or YouTube. But it is now so ubiquitous that it really needs to up its privacy game. And there is still a good chance that the US will actually ban TikTok - the Federal Communications Commission has already found that TikTok represents a concrete potential security threat to the USA, and negotiations are ongoing between TikTok and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) as to whether it can even continue in business in the US.

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