A Kiwi CEO has backed calls for social media platform TikTok to be removed from Google and Apple’s app stores amid concerns over users’ data.
Alex Ford, founder and CEO of Socialike, told Newshub he agreed with US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chief Brendan Carr that the app, which is majority owned by the Chinese Government, was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
That meant data from Kiwis, including biometric identifiers, was likely to be going to China with little control over what happens to it.
He also believed Government action was required to better protect Kiwis from predatory behaviour, but feared the law-making process in New Zealand worked too slowly to do so amid the fast-moving technology sector.
In an open letter on Twitter to the technology giants, the FCC’s Carr offered his analysis regarding an “alarming report” regarding the “vast troves of sensitive data” the app collects on US users.
“TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, an organisation that is beholden to the Communist Party of China and required by Chinese law to comply with the PRC’s surveillance demands,” Carr wrote.
“TikTok is not what it appears to be on the surface. It is not just an app for sharing funny videos or memes.
“That’s the sheep’s clothing. At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data,” he continued.
“Indeed, TikTok collects everything from search and browsing histories to keystroke patterns and biometric identifiers, including faceprints-which researchers have said might be used in unrelated facial recognition technology– and voiceprints.
“It collects location data as well as draft messages and metadata, plus it has collected the text, images, and videos that are stored on a device’s clipboard.”
However that should come as no surprise, according to Carr.
“Within its own borders, the PRC has developed some of the most invasive and omnipresent surveillance capabilities in the world to maintain authoritarian control.”
Ford told Newshub it was clear TikTok wasn’t just a platform for teenagers to dance to their favourite songs, and he had avoided using the app because of data concerns.
“From the early stages I did see it as being a bit of a shady platform,” he said.
“I think maybe [Kiwis] are a little bit naive when it comes to these platforms and it may be that we do need to do more research before jumping on them.
“We’ve got the FCC making these claims and attempting to regulate the social media space. In New Zealand we don’t really have that and there doesn’t seem to be anything protecting or educating consumers on these platforms,” Ford told Newshub.
“Humans are sheep, we follow trends. So I think there needs to be more education and levels of regulation before these things are opened up to New Zealanders.”
CONCERNS OVER TIMESCALES
Socialike has already taken a stand against social media companies which it feels isn’t necessarily operating in the best interests of its users, which included ditching Facebook as a platform it used with its customers.
That came down to the impact the company had had on Kiwis over the last few years, he said.
“You’ve got the Christchurch terrorist attack and the role they played in that but then you’ve also got the spread of hate misinformation disinformation through COVID.”
“There’s nothing regulating or stopping these platforms in New Zealand from being what they are.
“We’ve written to the New Zealand government, raising our concerns, obviously,” Ford told Newshub.
“And the response from the government was, ‘oh, well, we’re working on a bill that will see some sort of regulation on these platforms but it’s going to take another couple of years before it comes into action’.
“Well that’s too slow. These platforms work much faster than that. I think if we wanted to get government regulation, or the government involved in it today, we’re not in a place to be able to do that. And it’s putting New Zealanders in harm’s way.”
That meant Google and Apple withdrawing the app was a sensible option to stop Kiwis unwittingly sharing data with China. But he felt that was “highly unlikely” due to both companies’ reliance on China for manufacturing.
“I think we’re now at a point where we need to put a stop to tiptoeing around China and the Chinese situation. We need to stand up to them.
“And I think if Apple and Google stand up to them and remove TikTok from the app store, it’s a step in the right direction,” Ford said.
According to a CNBC report, TikTok said it was “among the most scrutinised platforms from a security standpoint, and we aim to remove any doubt about the security of US user data”.
“That’s why we hire experts in their fields, continually work to validate our security standards, and bring in reputable, independent third parties to test our defences.” it said.
Ultimately, however, it’s up to those using social media platforms to understand that the data it’s supplying may be far beyond what is expected.
Are you comfortable potentially sharing your face, voice, internet history and keystroke patterns with the Chinese Government?