China’s data collection agent: TikTok’s insidious ways to collect data and share it with the CCP


Although India was one of the first countries to ban the popular video-sharing app TikTok from the country, more and more governments across the world are now trying to get rid of the social video-sharing app, over concerns of user privacy and national security, and for good reason.

TikTok wants to persuade the US and the EU that it is just another social media platform, despite the fact that the tremendously popular short-form video app has been barred from federal government devices in the United States, as well as several state governments. Several legislators and officials want to go even further and outright outlaw TikTok, which ByteDance, a Chinese corporation, owns. 

Also read: TikTok dismisses calls for Chinese owners to divest in US

Companies registered in China are required, by law to provide access to Chinese state authorities to all their user data – irrespective of whether the user is a Chinese national or not. Furthermore, this requirement extends to all businesses, irrespective of their corporate structure and ownership to share the data. Then, there’s the fact that some of China’s largest companies, especially in the tech sector either belong to the Chinese government, or to high-ranking officials of the CCP. 

TikTok, apart from being a platform where people post and share short-form videos, is basically a data collection agent for the Chinese Communist Party. People often say that TikTok collects their user’s data and shares it with China. However, what many people don’t realise is the kind of data that TikTok collects and the methods it uses to collect those data points.

Overriding permissions
Whenever you set up an app after downloading it onto your device, you need to give it certain permission – location, access to your contacts, access to your microphones and cameras etc. Depending on the kind of app that you’re using, you either give the permission, or you don’t – this is a core functionality of the Android ecosystem, as well as that of the iOS.

Also read: Surprise, surprise: TikTok lying about Chinese spying, former employee tells US Congress

What TikTok does, is that it ignores what you give it permission for and what you don’t. Basically, if you permit TikTok to access even one single component of your device, the app now has access to everything in your device. For example, if you have allowed TikTok to access your gallery, but have denied it access to your contacts, it will still go ahead and access your contacts

Just think of it this way –  the moment you sign up on TikTok, a digital clone of your entire phone gets reproduced on TikTok’s servers, which contains everything that your phone does – photos, emails, passwords, biometric records – everything. And, as long as you have a working internet connection, this clone gets updated in real time.

And the reason why it has gotten away with it so far, is because it isn’t breaking any legal rules and laws. For the longest time, even Google and Apple had set this whole permissions business up as a guideline, rather than official policy. After all, they too, along with the US government are interested in your data.

What data does TikTok actually collect?
This is where things get scary. While the US government and American tech companies have placed a certain limit on what data can they collect from users, and only go beyond in certain special cases, TikTok collects everything, and we mean everything.

It can access users’ names, ages, phone numbers, email addresses, and details about the devices such as what device they are using, what is the system configuration, how much data they have on their phone and the mobile networks that they’re using.

TikTok can also access your call logs, SMSs and worse, your emails as well if you have signed into an email client on your phone. They are also capable of recording your keystrokes, messages on other networking and IM app, and even your biometric information such as fingerprints faceprints and voiceprints, even when the app has been disabled. 

Remember the datasets that Cambridge Analytica collected from users of Facebook? Well, TikTok makes Cambridge Analytica look like amateurs when it comes to the breadth of data that gets collected. The user profile that TikTok is able to create on the basis of the stuff they collect is perhaps better than any other government-issued profile you may have.

Another aspect that has really alarmed cyber security experts, is that once you install TikTok on your device – not even log in, just install the app – you have already signed away your data to TikTok. 

There are also several reports which suggest that you can never really get rid of TikTok from your device once you install it, and that it continues to share your data with its servers, even after the application has been uninstalled and removed.

Sharing it with the CCP
China has a law which says that all data that Chinese companies have access to, must be shared with the CCP, as and when they ask for it. Now, people assume that this refers to only the data that Chinese businesses have on their servers within the geopolitical boundaries of China. That is not the case.

The server that hosts the data may be located in any country in the world, but as long as a Chinese company has access to it, the data has to be shared with the CCP. Earlier this week, we learnt how ByteDance employees in China, can access the data of US citizens that is hosted on a server in the US – that is simply how TikTok has been set up as an organisation, internationally.

TikTok has always maintained that they do not actively share any data with the CCP, and while it might be true it doesn’t really have any meaningful impact. TikTok has acknowledged that its data, even if kept outside of Chinese borders, can be accessed by workers in China, and recent disclosures that the business tracked journalists writing about it have raised further concerns about this prospect.

In such a scenario, ByteDance has to share data that it has access to, with its Chinese overlords, whether TikTok agrees to this or not. 

Also read: US threatens TikTok ban if Chinese owners don’t sell stake

This is the reason why the US and possibly the EU, want ByteDance to divest their holdings in TikTok. 

Why does China want the data in the first place?
Data is information and information, in turn, is everything. Using the profile that ByteDance creates, they can specifically target certain sections of society with disinformation, and multiple ideological campaigns that present an alternate truth. 

At the very least, China can use ByteDance to influence elections in the country, without having to hack into any American server, not directly at least. At worse, it can honeypot and get certain people, especially those with ties to the government act against their own interest, by blackmailing them into doing something.

Most social media platforms have been accused of pushing people down echo chambers, especially in terms of political and cultural content. TikTok is no different in this regard. What makes TikTok worse is the lengths they are willing to go, and the scope of the data they collect. 

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China’s data collection agent: TikTok’s insidious ways to collect data and share it with the CCP
China’s data collection agent: TikTok’s insidious ways to collect data and share it with the CCP
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