TikTok has been under fire before. But make no mistake, this time it’s different—this time it’s worse. That has nothing to do with TikTok and everything to do with China, of course. If you want to build a strong technology brand in Western democracies, this is not a great time to be linked to Beijing. For TikTok, the result is the same, though: Headline calls urging users to delete the app immediately.
That was fully in evidence with TikTok’s defense against its ban in India last week. “I can confirm that the Chinese government has never made a request to us for the TikTok data of Indian users,” CEO Kevin Mayer assured the Indian government. “If we do receive such a request in the future,” he added, “we would not comply.” That data, TikTok says, is stored in Singapore anyway, beyond the reach of Beijing.
According to Chinese state-controlled media reports, TikTok owner ByteDance has invested more than $1 billion to build its vast Indian user base, and now faces losses of as much as $6 billion, as hundreds of millions of users are cut off. Initially, it seemed that the restrictions would simply halt new installs. TikTok saw more than 100 million downloads in May, double those in the U.S. But then it became clear that access for existing users would be restricted as well, severing the earnings of countless influencers and bitesize video stars across the country.
The ban in India has made headlines—the problems for TikTok, though, are much worse. This is likely just the start of a clampdown that has been months if not years in the making and which threatens to undermine the staggering success the platform has enjoyed, becoming one of the soaraway stars of the coronavirus lockdown.
The broader Indian ban was welcomed by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who applauded the country’s “clean app” approach and claimed such apps serve as an extension of China’s “surveillance state.” For TikTok, this will raise the spectre of the platform being targeted by the Trump administration in the same way as other Chinese tech giants—with devastating implications for its U.S. user base.
Let’s put this into perspective. India didn’t just ban TikTok, it banned 58 other apps, including major titles from other Chinese tech giants. But the commercial impact on TikTok was greater than the rest combined. Similarly, TikTok made headlines when a new Apple iOS 14 beta privacy feature caught the app secretly reading user clipboards. TikTok was not alone—many other well-known apps seemed to do the same. But none made headlines in the way TikTok had done.
To be a viral success story is double-edged—the bigger you are, the harder you fall. Quite literally. There has been a reported national security investigation into TikTok in the U.S., and there are reports that other countries are taking a look. The success this bitesize video sharing platform has enjoyed in the west is unique for a Chinese app of its kind. It genuinely competes for youth mindshare with YouTube and Instagram. Its growth has been quite extraordinary.
The serious criticisms of TikTok fall into two broad camps. First, that is has not done enough to protect the privacy and safety of its young audience. Reports and fines in the U.S., regulatory warnings in the U.K., have all come down hard on the privacy lapses in how the platform ensures that its viral appeal to kids worldwide doesn’t become an enabler for exploitation and abuse. This is fairly clear cut—and the platform has been working to remedy these issues. A new Transparency Center, as and when it’s available, will be part of this effort.
Second, we have security issues, which are much more complex. Again, though, TikTok is not alone. There has been a long-running clampdown on Chinese tech players with alleged links to Beijing. But it is TikTok that, alongside Huawei, stands out for the sheer attention it receives. The reason is very simple. Those are the two brands that have achieved the gravitational escape velocity to compete head to head with U.S. players for the same user eyeballs and advertising dollars.
TikTok does have security issues—there have been reports the platform has accepted and fixed. But now detailed investigations into the way in which the app operates have given rise to allegations of spyware and data theft. It’s not that simple. You have to remember that much of the app industry is built around monetizing user data to fuel targeted advertising that becomes a huge source of revenue.
A great deal of what TikTok does is common across other platforms—garnering an understanding of its users, their phones, their likes and dislikes and behaviors. But added to the wider issues, reverse engineering the platform showcases this and the optics are terrible. One of the original Reddit threads which is now some months old has fuelled multiple reports. TikTok goes too far—but countless other apps do the same. To understand whether this is a genuine nation-state level security issue, as alleged, one would need to dive much deeper into those findings. Watch this space.
In response to the technical allegations, a TikTok spokesperson told me that “in recent weeks there have been a number of claims made on the internet about TikTok’s security practices, including some claims that were made anonymously. We take these claims seriously and are in the process of conducting a full review and have determined that many of them are inaccurate or reflect analysis of older versions of the app that in some cases are years out of date.”
The TikTok spokesperson also told me that the company’s CISO, Roland Cloutier, “has published detailed accounts of some of the unsubstantiated accusations. As part of our overall approach to security, our information security team runs a continuous process to check for security vulnerabilities and fix them. We include world-class security firms in these assessments.”
As I’ve reported in the last week, past concerns raised over TikTok have been largely brushed aside by its hundreds of million of mostly young users. But the sense you get now is that this might be changing. Those reports are finding a viral audience, they are being shared by influencers and commentators with appeal to that same user base. Just as Zoom acted when security concerns were raised following its stellar lockdown success, TikTok needs to get in front of these issues. And fast.
Over the coming weeks, the real threat to TikTok would be talk of action in the U.S. or Europe, using privacy or security as a trigger, to limit access to or regulate the app. There is no sign yet of that happening. But India’s action—prompted by its own political tensions with China—has made such a response more likely.
Fully aware of all these moving parts, Facebook, the ultimate viral opportunist, has responded: Lasso is being shut down, Reels is being talked up. There is clear envy in the U.S. tech community that TikTok has built a new category killer that doesn’t belong to one of the California giants. There will now be significant investment to take advantage of TikTok’s woes to see if that can be rectified.
TikTok told me that it is “committed to respecting the privacy of users and being transparent with our community and security experts about how our app works. We are constantly striving to stay ahead of evolving security challenges, and encourage users to use the latest version so that they can enjoy the best experience possible.”
As things stand, TikTok can likely rectify the situation if it acts fast and openly. It needs to publicly and vocally distance itself from Beijing. It needs to acknowledge and not deny key security concerns, and publish a get-well plan. And, unlike the iOS clipboard issue, it needs to be very, VERY sure that it follows through with any commitments made. Until that happens, the headlines will keep coming.