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The privacy concerns at the heart of Wisconsin's TikTok ban

A view of the TikTok app logo, in Tokyo.
Kiichiro Sato
/
AP
A view of the TikTok app logo. Wisconsin recently banned TikTok on government owned devices.

TikTok has transformed how many people use social media. The app features a seemingly endless stream of short videos, strictly tailored to the interests of the user. The app's impressive ability to quickly cater its content to a user's preferences has prompted questions on how information is being gathered and used by the company, which has strong connections to the Chinese government.

As a result, some governments have chosen to ban TikTok, including Wisconsin, which recently banned the app on publicly owned devices. According to Michael Zimmer, the director of the Center for Data, Ethics, and Society at Marquette University, the concerns are widely shared among many U.S. governments.

There is a cybersecurity and privacy concern over how a company with close ties to a hostile, foreign government, could access intimate information about U.S. citizens. "I think state governments are concerned about the owners of TikTok, which is a Chinese company with connections to the Chinese government, and somehow getting access to users' phones and to government employees' phones," says Zimmer.

TikTok can also be highly addictive for users. Zimmer says TikTok functions differently from other common social media platforms because it's designed to provide instant feedback to its developers. It tracks what people are looking at and for how long. It tells developers to create an algorithm that can acutely predict a user's interest and give the app ample opportunity to learn more about the user.

"I've seen some studies that have shown that increasingly, people are relying on TikTok as a way to to find information. Or seek news or factual information [on the app] ... That is a little concerning because there aren't a lot of guardrails on that platform in terms of controlling misinformation," says Zimmer.

It's unclear if the concerns over TikTok are warranted. Zimmer explains that other apps, like Facebook, collect more intimate data on its users and TikTok's data collection is on par with other, similar apps. In addition, while protecting access to private citizen's life from foreign interests can have benefits, the rationale behind these decisions can foster xenophobia.

Zimmer explains, "The only worry I have is, you know, are we sort of setting ourselves up to be borderline xenophobic? Where we're automatically scared because it is a Chinese company or it's a company from a certain part of Europe or a certain part of Africa, and suddenly there's some kind of bias against it? And we have to be careful about that."

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Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2016.
Robert Larry joined WUWM in 2022 as a digital producer.
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