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Is TikTok the ‘Bright Spot of the Internet’ or a Spy App?

By Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics, American Military University

Often called the “bright spot of the internet,” TikTok is a social media app that has over 2 billion members across the globe. It was downloaded 315 million times in the quarter that ended on March 31, the highest number of downloads for any app in a quarter.

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But some tech industry security experts believe TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese company, has an ulterior purpose – spying on the West, and the U.S. in particular. Computing magazine for one, reports: “Security researchers have found that the TikTok iPhone app is spying on its users by secretly reading the clipboard.”

Forbes notes that a new report from the cyber experts at ProtonMail has called Chinese denials of spying via TikTok into question. “Beware,” it warns, “the social media giant not only collects troves of personal data on you, but also cooperates with the CCP, extending China’s surveillance and censorship reach beyond its borders.”

Nevertheless, TikTok has a huge following, not to mention several filters to create lively and appealing videos, most under five minutes. Using trending hashtags and keywords can be the portal to an unlimited library of videos on the site. Free digital video may not seem particularly appealing, especially when we have numerous apps that can achieve the same end, such as YouTube. However, talk to a member of Generation Z — a pre-teen, or teenager — in the U.S., and I’m sure you’ll hear an opposing opinion.

What Is TikTok?

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a China-based company. While many users are just viewers, TikTok makes most of its money when users upgrade to a pro account which allows users to access and analyze his/her analytics. However, security concerns have prompted U.S. officials to consider removing the app, which has sent TikTok users into a frenzy. TikTok has become very popular with a usage number equal to Snapchat, below Instagram, and ahead of Twitter.

According to a statement by TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer, “TikTok lets hundreds of millions of people across the US and around the world experience new ideas and find their voice through short, immersive, expressive videos. It’s truly inspiring to see how our users form communities and connect through this platform, and we are dedicated to continuing to provide a fun and safe experience for them to show their creativity and engage with entertaining content.”

Is TikTok Just about Dancing?

Some TikTok videos can be informative to the point of being intrusive, such as the video highlighting the lack of social distancing at a University of Miami Hurricane Freshman Party, despite university regulations banning more than four students in a dorm room at a time. In addition, UM lecturer John Peng Zhang resigned after a student posted a TikTok video that spotted a pornographic bookmark on Zhang’s computer during a Zoom business analytics class session. However, the vast majority of the videos are light and frivolous, which adds to the appeal of the website.

Can the US Ban TikTok?

Other countries, such as India, have banned TikTok. India is in the midst of a border dispute with its neighbor China. If anyone tries to download the app in India, they would receive an error message explaining that it is “complying with the Government of India’s directive.”

Announcement of the ban led to a flurry of influencers hurriedly posting videos asking their TikTok audience to follow them on Instagram, YouTube or other platforms. But other online sites, such as Reel, Starmaker, Likee, Chingari, Mitron, and Moj are trying to fill the void but with little success.

According to Erik J. Savitz, writing in Barrons, Microsoft has offered to purchase TikTok for $35 to $40 billion “a transaction would likely add less than 1% to Microsoft’s annual revenues, with a minimal impact on profitability.” Past acquisitions of app-based platforms such as Skype and LinkedIn don’t have a track record of success. Microsoft excels in applications not social media apps, so it is unclear how TikTok would thrive in an acquisition of this nature.

So while acquisition negotiations and calls for an investigation are ongoing, TikTok is operational in the U.S. so keep laughing, dancing, and singing.

About the Author

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is a professor at American Military University and has over 25 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management. She holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.

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