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How safe is TikTok? Euronews asks the experts

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This Feb. 25, 2020, file photo, shows the icon for TikTok in New York.
This Feb. 25, 2020, file photo, shows the icon for TikTok in New York.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/File
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TikTok is facing an increased amount of scrutiny on the way it stores our data.

It is feared the Beijing-based app may be required by the Chinese government to hand over user information, if not now, in the future.

On Friday, Amazon sent an email to its employees asking them to delete the app from their phones amid "security risks" - before it backtracked a few hours later saying there was no change in policies regarding TikTok.

This came only days after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US government was “certainly looking” at banning the app, sparking confused and irritated posts as well as jokes by TikTok users.

India went even further this month, when it banned dozens of Chinese apps, including TikTok, citing privacy concerns, amid tensions between the countries.

TikTok is also facing probes in several countries.

In May, the Dutch Data Protection Authority (DPA) launched an investigation into the popular social app over privacy concerns, while UK authorities are investigating the level of protection the app provides to children.

How much can we trust TikTok over their relations with China?

The app has always denied it would pass information to the Chinese government - but can we be sure about it?

The short answer is "no", according to cybersecurity professor at Ulster University Kevin Curran.

At the same time, he argues, there are no reasons to believe TikTok would "risk a future enormous blowback by stating data was not stored in China when it was (for non-Chinese citizens)."

In any case, TikTok collects fewer "data points" than Facebook, Professor Curran told Euronews, an assertion corroborated by a recent investigation conducted by the Washington Post into TikTok's privacy.

However, other experts warn we should not quantify the level of privacy of our apps merely by comparing the amount of data they collect.

"We know which data the app grasps but how those data are aggregated and processed is a different matter, and we don’t know much about that," Stefano Zanero, cybersecurity expert at the Politecnico University of Milan, told Euronews.

Also, while we know several things about Facebook's and other US-based companies' business model, we cannot say the same about China-based apps, Zanero argues.

The app has recently decided to withdraw from Hong Kong following the enforcement of a new national security law.

It was "the only option it had to ensure it was no longer accumulating data it could later be coerced into providing to the Chinese government," digital privacy advocate at ProPrivacy Jo O'Reilly told Euronews.

Which data does TikTok store?

Tiktok stores data on each video a user watches, including the duration, professor Curran explained.

Also, the app has access to the "contents of private messages" as well as gathers "your country location, internet address and type of device."

Depending on permissions granted by the users, TikTok can also collect data relating to "age, phone number, phone contacts and certain social network connections" as well as more precise "location data."

Sean O'Mahoney, a TikTok user based in Salford, England, told Euronews that although he's not "confident" data is stored safely "as much as it should be," he does not mind sharing such information with the app.

"From how I see it, it's no different than any other service", he said, adding that he usually moves onto another platform when it comes to "private messaging."

How safe are young TikTok users?

TikTok has emphasised that the app should not be used by people under the age of 13.

Still, many users are teenagers who may be more vulnerable than older or more experienced users.

How safe is this age group then?

"The Chinese government probably has little interest in tracking the latest dance crazes on the app," Jo O'Reilly told Euronews.

At the same time "the app encourages users to not just comment or like content, but to respond with their own content this can also expose young users to age-inappropriate content, or predatory new online 'friends'."

"It's important for parents to have conversations with young people about both their online safety and digital privacy as well as teaching themselves about the apps their children are using.", she stressed.

More action needed

According to a recent report, around a quarter of European 9-16 year olds said something upset them online in the past year – a substantial increase since 2010.

"Although the internet brings many benefits, regulators and industry need to take more action to keep children safe," said Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics.

"This applies especially to new apps like TikTok, which seem to enter the market – and children’s lives – in advance of developing needed privacy and safety protections," she told Euronews.

TikTok recently released a Family Pairing feature that allows parents to decide what their children should or should not see on the app, who they can connect with and message, as well as how much time they're allowed to spend on the app.

Livingstone said given the many reports of risks linked to TikTok, it would seem wise for parents to ensure their under 13s do not use their platform.

As for teenagers, she advised parents should not monitor everything they do but should instead "keep a trusting conversation going about social media, so that the parent can step in to help if needed."