If you have any computer security awareness at all, you will have heard about the US Governments efforts to block TikTok, WeChat and other Chinese based companies from operating in the United States. In the surface it seems silly to block silly dance video apps so we looked into it a bit further.
What Data Does TikTok Collect?
Surely sensitive business and government information is not being shared on TikTok and their CEO is adamant that the data is stored outside of China anyway, so what is there to worry about?
Well, it turns out that TikTok, and almost every other app, know a lot about you but most notably:
- type of device
- version of operating system (i.e. iOS 8 or Android 10)
- preferred language
- what you are interested in
- when you are active online
- your keystroke rhythms
If you get into communication services like WeChat there is also the possibility of access to what you are writing, but that is not the focus of this article.
How Big is TikTok?
Remember that TikTok has been downloaded 2 BILLION times and that while the United States is its third largest market by user count, the US is TikTok’s profit center:
What Can China Do With TikTok Data?
TikTok data can be used in the ways you would expect. For instance the video below explains that the Chinese government has a pretty good idea who some spys were and they used data from companies like TikTok to figure out where they were in the world. They explain that these spys were immediately tracked upon landing in China.
While that type of spy hunting data is very valuable to any country, it is not likely the type of thing you need to worry about. So what do you need to worry about? Here are some more common scenerios:
- What if you were just a regular Joe and used latest in banking security systems which use the patterns / rhythms of your typing to confirm the person logged into your account is fact you. That information can be garnered from TikTok data and it can be reproduced by computers.
- If you are like most people you use the same (or very similar) username and password on TikTik as you do on WeChat as you do on Facebook as you do on Twitter and possibly even your bank. This is a nutty situation that puts you at risk and even though our sister site and many others have written extensively on easy ways to make passwords safer including using password tiering.
- What if you were secretly gay and did not want to “come out of the closet” for fear it would affect your job or social standing, but you watch gay focused material periodically. The Chinese aren’t stupid and if they can figure this out, you could be blackmailed into giving up other information
- By knowing what device and operating system you have (i.e. iPhone 9 with iOS 11.1) the Chinese may take advantage of any of the 71 PUBLICLY known security problems, (never mind the dozens of undocumented ones), to get more information or money from you.
Yes, China Knows All About You
In fairness to China, every country knows a alot about you. Any security organization with access to TikTok’s data will combine it with other databases to further expand their file on each and every person living in Canada, the United States, France, Germany, the UK and other Western countries. You may recall the absolutely massive Hilton Hotels hack in 2018 which was very likely purpetrated by the Chinese government; well that data combined with TikTok data then combined with Anthem Health Care’s hacked data (again, almost certainly by the Chinese governent) will make a very complete dossier on YOU. From your blood type, to your passport, to your current location… China will have it all.
Does China Really Want TikTok Data?
Hell yes! China is no different from an aggressive corporate competitor and in 2021 data is the new gold. China wants as much information on as many people as they can get.
There are so many creative ways they can use that data. Here is one. Imagine a scenrio in which China wants Canada to vote a particular way at the United Nations and then imagine how much pressure Joe Biden or Justin Trudeau would be under if China just mentioned (not even a full threat) that if they are not happy, they MIGHT release full documentation (health information, social insurance numbers, mortgage and bank information, usernames and passwords…) on every person over the age of 50 in Canada or the United States.
Imagine the chaos that would ensue if a large volume of voters highly confidential information were to be made available to hackers. Credit systems would grind to a halt, workers would take days off work to deal with identity theft and social strife would be rampent.
China, or Russia, or … does not actually have make the data available or even outright threaten to make it available; they just need to mention it in passing for our leaders to get the message.