With the political controversy and corporate tumult surrounding the Tik Tok app, is this a good time to part ways with it? The answer depends on your concern about the Chinese government possibly having access to your information.

The Tik Tok story backdrop

ByteDance, maker of the short-video app, Tik Tok, has been at the center of controversy this year. Firstly, because of security concerns and allegations that the app-maker sent data to China, something the company refutes.

Then, President Trump and lawmakers intensified matters by issuing an executive order asking for the sale of Tik Tok’s U.S. operations. If not complied with in 90 days, the app would be banned in this country. The government’s order is based on additional concern that the Chinese government can access location data, search histories and other private details of its over 175m American users. 

Microsoft and Oracle are competing to buy this business at a price between $20 -$30bn and the deadline has now been extended to November 12. Now, a new Chinese restriction could complicate a sale by requiring approval for TikTok to sell its algorithm, according to CNBC. Tik Tok also filed a complaint in federal court challenging the Administration’s efforts to ban TikTok in the U.S.

Confused yet?

With this complex backdrop, you may be wondering whether you and your children should ban yourselves from Tik Tok. The answer depends on how much you worry about China possibly having access to data.

Tik Tok is “just as safe” as other social media apps you use

If you read the fine print, the user information collected by Tik Tok is similar to – and even less than – what is collected by other social media apps. Apple, Google and even Twitter collect data about you through your usage. For example, Facebook’s data policy states that it collects the following about its users:

We collect information about how you use our Products, such as the types of content you view or engage with; the features you use; the actions you take; the people or accounts you interact with; and the time, frequency and duration of your activities. 

Facebook.com data policy

In a statement to the Washington Post, a Tik Tok spokesperson blasts back that the company asks for far less information than its competitors: “TikTok collects much less U.S. user information than many of the companies in our space and stores it in the U.S. and Singapore. We have not, and would not, give it to the Chinese government.”

If you are comfortable with this statement and sharing your data with these other sites, then there is little reason to shudder your Tik Tok usage.

The Chinese government factor

The difference between Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok is that all but one are owned by American companies. Domestic ownership doesn’t guarantee the safekeeping of your data, however. We know these companies can be hacked by global entities, as we saw with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. But, the treatment of data is based on U.S. laws.

Because Tik Tok is a Chinese-owned company, your data is being sent abroad – though not to China, says the company.

Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law.

Tik Tok Statement

Tik Tok maintains it has never shared its information with the government. The CIA corroborates this. According to a New York Times report, the CIA reports “it is possible that the Chinese intelligence authorities could intercept data or use the app to bore into smartphones. But there is no evidence they have done so…”

The decision ultimately comes to your trust of a Chinese-owned company to directly handle your data. Given that many of use Chinese devices and already share data with companies, like Facebook, that have previously allowed Chinese firms to access to user data, this may not be uniquely concerning.

Staying safe on all social media

Vigilance is needed around personal information, no matter the social media platform. Whether on Tik Tok, LinkedIn or other sites, there are things you can do to reduce your exposure, according to Norton Security. They include:

  • Adjusting your privacy settings
  • Avoid revealing too much about yourself (DOB, work history, etc)
  • Don’t “over friend”
  • Keep passwords strong, using some of these tips

And then, there’s always this approach:

When in doubt, fib.

“There’s no reason to give TikTok your real name or access to your contacts or other social media connections. Pick a fake name and a throwaway email address. You can also use TikTok without giving it your phone number or email by never logging in — you can still watch videos in the app and on the open Web, though you won’t be able to follow specific accounts or upload videos of your own. And this still won’t stop TikTok from gathering other information about your device.”

Geoffrey Fowler, Tech Columnist at The Washington Post