Is TikTok sending data to China? Latest Citizen Lab research says probably not

Masha Borak
·5-min read

TikTok, the short video-sharing app owned by Chinese company ByteDance, does not pose a national security threat to the US, a new study by the University of Toronto-affiliated research group Citizen Lab concluded, as the Biden administration continues to review the potential risks posed by Chinese apps to determine whether they should be banned.

In a report published on Monday, the Citizen Lab said it found no “overt data transmission” by TikTok to the Chinese government since the app did not contact any servers located in China during its testing. However, researchers did not rule out the possibility that user data gathered outside of China could be sent to the country later.

According to lead research author Pellaeon Lin, TikTok collects similar amounts of data as Facebook to track user behaviour and serve targeted ads. This data includes device information such as identifiers and network address names, as well as usage patterns such as the posts liked by a user.

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ByteDance did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent on Tuesday. A transparency report released by TikTok last month, which listed law enforcement data requests it received globally in the second half of 2020, did not show any requests from China, where only its sister app Douyin is available.

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TikTok, which was the world’s most downloaded non-gaming app alongside Douyin last month, has been the target of global concerns due to its Chinese ownership.

As TikTok quickly rose to become a favourite among teenagers in North America, US lawmakers have been raising concerns over potential Chinese government access to the data of US users. Last year, the Trump administration moved to ban the app in the US citing national security concerns, forcing ByteDance to find a buyer for TikTok’s US operations. The Chinese company eventually reached a deal with Oracle, but the South China Morning Post recently reported that ByteDance has walked away from the agreement after Donald Trump lost the re-election.

Lin said the research into TikTok started before Trump’s actions against the app.

“TikTok is part of a new breed of globally popular Internet platforms which have significant ties and stake in China. Studying TikTok will give us insights about this breed. This will become ever more important because there will be more and more popular Chinese apps on the international market,” said Lin, citing the examples of Zoom, the US video conferencing platform that had routed meeting data through servers in China, and Agora, the Chinese audio-streaming technology provider used by US social app Clubhouse.

“Governments need to inform people of the technical or scientific basis behind policymaking,” said Lin.

Although, with the new Biden presidency, the threat of banishment appears to have subsided, TikTok’s troubles in the US may not be over, according to analysts, since the new administration has made it clear that it will continue to focus attention on security risks posed by Chinese technologies.

TikTok has also faced suspicions in other parts of the world, including India, which banned the platform along with 58 other Chinese-made apps in June 2020 following a deadly border clash between the two countries. This month, Ireland’s data protection commissioner Helen Dixon expressed concerns that EU citizens’ data may be accessed by AI engineers in China.

While international critics have also raised concerns that TikTok may be intentionally spreading content favourable to the Chinese government, the Citizen Lab said “there is also no business advantage for TikTok to spread this type of content to international users, especially if there is obvious bias towards the Chinese government”.

The report also found that the app did not restrict any of the keywords it tested, most of them related to Chinese politics and Covid-19. However, researchers saw that some politically sensitive posts later became unavailable. Since it was unclear whether the posts were deleted by the users or the platform, the Citizen Lab said that evidence for political censorship was inconclusive.

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Citizen Lab also delved into privacy, security and censorship issues related to Douyin, which operates in a market with strict content control.

It found that the app forbids users from posting politically sensitive content according to Chinese laws. And while Douyin and TikTok share many similarities in their source codes, researchers found that Douyin restricted some keywords. The app also collects more data compared to TikTok, prompting privacy concerns from the researchers.

Citizen Lab, which conducts research into digital threats, has previously looked into Tencent Holdings’ popular social app WeChat and other Chinese online platforms. In one of the team’s key findings last year, WeChat was said to be conducting surveillance of images and files shared on the platform by international accounts registered outside China. The platform allegedly used the monitored content to train its censorship algorithms.

That same year, Citizen Lab also found evidence that WeChat blacklisted more than 500 keyword combinations relating to the coronavirus outbreak. This included text that referred to Li Wenliang, the doctor whistle-blower from Wuhan who later died from the new coronavirus.

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