In the midst of the political controversy over TikTok, one thing is clear: TikTok, like every other Chinese company operates under the purview of the Chinese government. While TikTok steadfastly denies any form of data sharing with the government, this close relationship raises eyebrows from privacy experts who warn that TikTok users’ data is far from secure in the hands of ByteDance.
Yet, the young users who consider themselves to be ‘tech savvy’ have reacted to such concerns with a shrug. Lauren Sparrow downloaded TikTok in March to pass the time during lockdown. Since then she’s posted tutorials on crafting and videos of her two cats, Calcifer and Jiji, some of which have accrued millions of views and likes. She says: “I’m so used to all social networks having my data that I feel it’s just the price I have to pay to connect with others.”
“I don’t really care that these corporations have my data as long as I know they have it,” Sparrow says. “At this point, I’m so used to all social networks having all of my data that I feel it’s just the price I have to pay to connect with others.”
Threats of action against the app – which some US authorities fear could share user data with the Chinese government – sent shockwaves through the TikTok community, with many content creators rushing to launch live streams to direct followers to alternative platforms. Videos reacting to the potential ban ranged from technical tips on how to evade it, to anger at Trump, to indifference over data privacy.
“Am I the only one who doesn’t care if China collects my data?” a user in one viral video stated. “Let [the Chinese government] have my data. They know me better than I know myself,” another joked.
On a more fundamental level, most do not believe they have the choice to opt out of data collection, said Josh Golin, the executive director of the non-profit Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.
“If you gave most young people a choice between protecting their privacy by getting off social media or staying on social media, they will stay,” he said. “But what if you had a choice to be both on social media and have your privacy protected?”
TikTok does collect user data, but not significantly more than many US-based apps. While there are some legitimate concerns about the app – such as whether its content could be influenced by censorship in China or how securely the platform is coded – some have speculated that Trump is targeting TikTok in retaliation for his Tulsa rally, during which TikTok users organized campaigns to book tickets en masse then fail to show up, leaving thousands of seats empty.