Security Risk or Not, TikTok is a Wildly Popular Global Phenomenon

The video sharing app was a runaway success even before quarantines, lockdowns and other coronavirus-related social distancing restrictions boosted its worldwide appeal. It is said to have recently passed the 2 billion download mark. But concerns have risen over possible misuse of the app and its enormous user data trove 

Photo: Reuters

Some people claim that global video sharing platform TikTok is a potential national security risk that could be used to conduct disinformation campaigns, interfere in elections and secretly monitor content.
Others say the app nothing more than an irresistible means of entertainment or outreach. Even the tech-savvy IDF, for example, has an official account. 
One thing that nobody can dispute is that TikTok is a social media powerhouse. It was a smash hit even before quarantines, lockdowns and other coronavirus-related social distancing restrictions boosted its worldwide appeal. 
TikTok offers a steady stream of short user-made videos running from 15 to 60 seconds, such as tutorials, dance challenges and comedy sketches. Users can also create and share their own videos with cool music and special effects.
Many of the attention-grabbing, wacky and sometimes bizarre videos have gone viral, turning anonymous people into overnight internet celebrities.
It first gained popularity among Generation Z users, namely those born after 1995, but it is now being used widely by adults as well amid the coronavirus pandemic. Even healthcare professionals are using it to spread important information.  
In fact, TikTok has now been downloaded more than 2 billion times after a record-setting first quarter of 2020, according to estimates released in late April. 
According to mobile analytics firm Sensor Tower, the software was installed about 315 million times in the first three months of the year via the App Store and Google Play, the most downloads for any app in a quarter.
"While the app was already popular and backed by a large user acquisition campaign, TikTok's latest surge comes amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen consumers drawn to their mobile devices more than ever as they look for new ways to shop, work, and connect with other," Sensor Tower said. 
India is the app's biggest market with 611 million downloads, followed by China with over 196 million and the US with 165 million. More than 75 percent of all installs, or over 1.5 billion, occurred through Google Play, and over 24 percent, or more than 495 million, were from The App Store, according to the estimates. 
TikTok is said to be the first app after Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp to exceed the 2 billion download metric. It reportedly surpassed 1.5 billion downloads five months earlier.  
Developed by Beijing-based parent company ByteDance, reportedly one of the world’s most valuable startups, TikTok was launched outside of China in 2017. It is the first Chinese app to make serious inroads in the West.
However, concern has risen over the platform being a potential national security risk, with some government officials and privacy advocates claiming that ByteDance could be pressured to monitor content for the Chinese government or to use the app for interfering in elections or conducting disinformation campaigns. 
The US Department of Homeland Security, State Department and Defense Department, as well as the US Army and Navy, have all banned use of TikTok due to potential security risks, such as the collection of user data. In February, the US Transportation Security Administration banned its employees from using the app for social media engagement.
TikTok has denied that it would ever hand over user data, and insisted it would refuse if ever asked to do so. The company has also said that its servers are outside China, and that none of the data is subject to Chinese law. US user data, for example, is stored in US and backed up in Singapore, it said.
In January, Israeli cyber security company CheckPoint said it found multiple vulnerabilities that could allow hackers to seize control of TikTok accounts, manipulate the content and gain access to personal information. The findings were disclosed to the company and patched.