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Does TikTok pose ‘data espionage’ concerns for the U.S.? The answer is complicated

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Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

While Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok has had a meteoric rise in popularity since it was released in 2016, the app’s growth has posed privacy concerns when it comes to the collection of users’ information, highlighting what a recent New York Times op-ed labeled a “data espionage problem.”

The fear surrounding so-called data espionage is that social media apps collect users’ data in vast quantities, which can be used by adversarial governments for harmful purposes. TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, and some cybersecurity experts warn that the authoritarian country, which already monitors its own citizens through different emerging technologies, could use the platform to gather and exploit consumers’ information.

“TikTok has this unique position in that it’s very popular and getting more popular, but it has this weird ownership structure,” says Northeastern computer science professor Christo Wilson, a founding member of the university’s Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute. “Anything you see on that platform or interact with or generate, they see that. Like many mobile apps, it has a lot of different, sensitive information that it’s collecting, and that’s getting shipped off to China.”

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