If you haven’t heard of TikTok, then you best ask the closest teen or 20-something what it’s all about. But you better be quick, because if President Donald Trump has anything to do with it, it’s about to become non-existent (in the US, anyway).
But recently, President Trump has spoken of banning TikTok in the United States — much to the horror of its 70 million US subscribers. In response, there are reports it may be bought by tech giant Microsoft (however, no agreement has been reached).
But how did the app get the attention of the White House? And what’s happening int he US?
Here’s everything you need to know (in case the kids/teens in your life ask).
Why is TikTok in the firing line?
Scrutiny over the app began in April when Reddit user, Bangorlol, posted an analysis that TikTok invaded privacy.
“I reverse-engineered the app, and feel confident in stating that I have a very strong understanding for how the app operates,” they said.
They then went on to say that it was using an API (Application Programming Interface) that could gain access to your phone hardware, including but not limited to memory usage and disk space; plus information from other apps that have been installed and anything “network-related” including local IP, router, your mac and wifi access point name.
The post also said that “some variants of the app had GPS pinging enabled” and it could “set up a local proxy server” on your device, while also having “several different protections in place to prevent you from reversing or debugging the app as well”.
“There is zero reason a mobile app would need this functionality legitimately.”
Read the full post by scrolling through the Instagram below.
TikTok is currently owned by a Chinese internet company called ByteDance and Trump’s administration is increasingly concerned that the Chinese Government could gain access to the information and data of its users.
According to the New York Times, the owners have “repeatedly denied that it is influenced by Beijing”, however, tensions are at an all-time high and Trump believes that being owned by a Chinese company poses a threat to national security.
In a bid to smooth things over, TikTok is now said to be trying to sell the app to a US-owned company, so that it has ownership of all the information.
While it seems far-fetched, the White House also had similar concerns with Huawei and ZTE, two other Chinese companies.
Who is ByteDance?
ByteDance is a privately own internet company which is run out of Beijing. It also has many non-Chinese investors including SoftBank, General Atlantic and KKR.
Back in May, TikTok hired former Chairman of Direct-to-Consumer & International division of The Walt Disney Company, Kevin Mayer to head its team as CEO and hired 1500 employees with plans to hire 10,000 more in the next three years.
How can Trump actually “ban” TikTok?
On Friday, Trump said that he could “ban” the use of TikTok with an executive order, however, there is no clear explanation of how this will come to fruition.
The New York Times has explained that there are a few ways this could happen.
One way, is by using a law called the “International Emergency Economic Powers Act” which will block products being able to be purchased on American app stores or “it could put TikTok’s owner on a list that prohibits American firms from selling goods to it without a licence,” however, in order to prevent either of these, ByteDance can agree to sell.
What has Tik Tok said?
In a statement released on the app in the US, Vanessa Pappas, the General Manager of Tik Tok North America said: “we’re not planning on going anywhere”.
“Tik Tok is home for creators and artists to express themselves, their ideas and connect with people across different backgrounds and we are so proud of all the various communities that call Tik Tok their home,” she said, before adding: “We’re building the safest app because we know it’s the right thing to do.”
A message from Vanessa Pappas, General Manager of TikTok North America: “We’re not planning on going anywhere.” pic.twitter.com/Bhr9D0U2zw
— Taylor Lorenz (@TaylorLorenz) August 1, 2020
What about Australia?
On August 5, Prime Minister Scott Morrison ruled out an Australian ban, however, said it was a case of buyer’s beware because the “extension cord goes back to China”.
In an online question and answer session at the Aspen Security Forum, he said that they “have had a good look at this” and that “there is no evidence for us to suggest having done that, that there is any misuse of any people’s data that has occurred, at least from an Australian perspective, in relation to these applications.”
“You know, there’s plenty of things that are on TikTok which are embarrassing enough in public; it’s that sort of a social media device. That said, I think our response is that Australians have to be very aware, and it’s not just with TikTok and things like that.
“But I think people should understand and there’s a sort of a buyer beware process. There’s nothing at this point that would suggest to us that security interests have been compromised or Australian citizens have been compromised because of what’s happening with those applications. But people should know that the line connects right back to China and that they should exercise their own judgment about whether they should participate in those things or not.”
ABC News reported earlier in August, that the app was also facing scrutiny on a local level, here in Australia.
Analysts have said that the app “harvests huge amount of data” and ByteDance may be “forced” to share that information with the Chinese Government.
Back in July, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the Australian Government was looking “very closely” into it and now has directed intelligence agencies to investigate.
“If we consider there is a need to take further action than we are taking now, then I can tell you we won’t be shy about it,” he said.
The ABC also reported that data from the app is stored in the US and Singapore and the company says that Australians do not need to be concerned.
“TikTok does not share information of our users in Australia with any foreign government, including the Chinese Government, and would not do so if asked,” a statement from the company read.
While this sounds promising, the ABC reports that some Federal MPs are sceptical of the claim, especially when the Chinese law states that it can hand over any information.
Representatives from TikTok Australia fronted “a parliamentary committee that is investigating the threat of foreign interference through social media” with Labor Senator Jenny McAllister at the helm.
“I’d like TikTok to explain the way that they protect the privacy of users of their data, and I’d also like them to explain how it is that they moderate content,” she told the ABC on August 2.
“I think the task of the committee is to try and describe the nature of the problem. If you’ve got a good handle on the problem, then you can develop solutions — but we’re not there yet,” she said during the interview.