TikTok could soon get banned in the United States. As CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies before Congress, some concerning information about the app has come to light. It seems even nearly three years after the Indian government banned it for data security reasons, TikTok still has access to Indian user data and personal information. The app’s parent company, ByteDance, can also obtain this information.
A current employee at TikTok revealed to Forbes, “I don’t think [Indians are] aware of how much of their data is exposed to China right now, even with the ban in place.”
This includes profiles, personal information and the users’ closest connections on the app. Any employee can use someone’s unique identifier to find out their name, where they live, who they were friends with on TikTok and where they shared content from the app. With the help of additional internal tools, staff can even find out an ex-TikTok user’s search behaviour.
There is already an ethical debate regarding the use of people’s social media information for advertising and influencing opinions. But these concerns are amplified given that Indians cannot access their own TikTok profiles anymore. They have no means of using the app or revisiting the data they have given away. So why should the app and its parent company still hold sensitive personal information? TikTok had close to 150 million users in India before the ban. The massive reservoir of their personal information is at the fingertips of the company’s employees. To some extent, it puts the effectiveness of the ban in question as well. Maybe stricter measures should have been taken to ensure that the company wiped out already stored data as well. Especially given the tensions between India and China at the centre of the ban, this new revelation is worrisome.
“From [their social graphs], if you want to start a movement, if you want to divide people, if you want to do any kind of operation to influence the public on the app, you can just use that information to target those groups,” the employee further added.
TikTok, an app that commanded immense popularity at one time, is now facing scrutiny from all sides. US President Joe Biden’s government wants to ban it too unless the Chinese owner agrees to sell its stake. UK government officials are urging Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to also consider putting an end to the app’s use by politicians. The reasons are broadly the same – cybersecurity and the fear that Beijing will be able to access vulnerable data. In light of these new revelations about India, it might be time to think one step further. Even after the ban, existing user data could pose a threat to privacy and is a major ethical issue that authorities must address.