Is TikTok sending data to China? Latest Citizen Lab research says probably not
- New research findings say that TikTok does not display “overtly malicious behaviour” and is not a threat to US national security
- Researchers find no evidence of censorship in TikTok but its sister app Douyin restricts some politically sensitive keywords
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.
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.
Lin said the research into TikTok started before Trump’s actions against the app.
“Governments need to inform people of the technical or scientific basis behind policymaking,” said Lin.
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.
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.