TikTok collects only so much information from its users as any social media app and there is no evidence to conclude that it might be sending data to China. The findings from a Citizen Lab report also emphasises that the app does not exhibit overtly malicious behaviour.
However, the report by the laboratory attached to the University of Toronto that focuses on civil digital threats and high-level policy engagement, revealed that TikTok tracks user behaviour for targeted advertising and platform customisation and this data is shared with third parties, such as Google and Facebook.
The study also did not observe the app collecting contact lists, recording and sending photos, audio, videos, or geolocation coordinates without user permission. Like many popular social media platforms, TikTok too collects similar types of data to track user behaviour and serve targeted ads, such as device models, serial numbers and usage patterns. At the same time, the research notes that device information and usage patterns the app collects are not necessary to provide the core functions of the apps.
"Some of the collected information is sent directly to TikTok servers while some is first sent to third parties such as Facebook and Google. TikTok also tells Facebook about the specific posts that you have viewed and whenever you like a post or follow a user. All of this information allows TikTok and their partners to learn about your interests and behaviour. When combined with information collected through other means and channels, TikTok and their partners may be able to track your viewing history across different platforms," the study notes.
The report assumes significance as India banned the app developed by ByteDance due to its Chinese links. The Donald Trump administration had also moved to ban the app in the US citing national security concerns.
The research did not find any overt data transmission to the Chinese government by TikTok, which means that the user data might not be stored in China. At the same time, the research also did not rule out the possibility that the non-China servers that receive user data transfer them to servers in China afterwards. “If any user data is actually stored in China, it increases the likelihood that the Chinese government could gain access to it,” the report says.
Further, researchers also suggested that overtly TikTok does not pose more threat to national security than other popular social media apps like Facebook. TikTok and Facebook collect similar amounts of user data.
"The business advantage and control of valuable personal data lost to TikTok, a foreign company, could potentially negatively impact national security. These issues are relevant to the US and any other country that is assessing the use of the application. On the business side, TikTok is a strong foreign contender to the current US dominance in the social media industry. This potentially is an area that can be viewed as threatening US national security, as it decreases a US business advantage and the influence it could exert by controlling the content distribution channels of the internet,” the study says.
However, the report underscores that neither does TikTok’s program features nor its code pose a threat to national security. “It also does not appear to harm national security by being uncooperative with government data requests or by spreading information favorable to the Chinese government. Citizen Lab further revealed that there is a separate version of the TikTok app for East and Southeast Asia, suggesting an emphasis on the region.
The study also analysed Douyin, a TikTok-like app also developed by ByteDance. However, despite not exhibiting overtly malicious behavior, Douyin contains features that raise privacy and security concerns, such as dynamic code loading and server-side search censorship, while TikTok does not contain these features.
At the same time, TikTok and Douyin’s Android apps share many parts of their source code. ”We postulate that ByteDance develops TikTok and Douyin starting out from a common code base and applies different customizations according to market needs,” the study says.