TikTok has been a powerful force in the world of social media. The video platform was launched in China under the name “Douyinin September 2016. Its parent company quickly launched an international version the following year after its success in China.
Tiktok is one of the most popular apps in the world with 1.2 billion monthly active users in 2021 and around 1.8 billion in 2022. The app has currently been downloaded over three billion times.
TikTok has also seen growth in the African region, with the app apparently having a 31.9% market share in Nigeria and an estimated user base of 9 million in South Africa in 2020.
But the app has had its share of controversy in part because of reports of its ties to the Chinese government.
In 2017, India banned TikTok, preventing millions of users in the country from accessing the platform, fearing that these TikToks were one of many apps from Chinese companies engaging in activities that were threatening”national security and defense of india.”
Recently, in the United States, 19 of 50 states now restrict access to TikTok on government computers. Some school districts are also considering introducing their own restrictions.
ByteDancethe company that owns TikTok, is caught between an ongoing trade war with China and the United States, as politicians on the Republican and Democratic side are both wary of China.
A senior Republican Federal Communications Commission (FCC) official said he was concerned China could use sensitive, non-public data gleaned from TikTok to “blackmail, espionage, foreign influence campaigns and surveillance.”
With all these security concerns, should African governments consider banning TikTok, especially in the workplace of public servants?
Risky or harmless social media app?
China has faced a lot of security over the past few years with several reports detailing some “shady” behavior.
In 2019, there was a report that China had used Huawei cameras to spy on officials Headquarters of the African Union (AU). UA technicians had discovered that the servers provided by Huawei were exporting their data to Shanghai and that the walls built by a Chinese company were strewn with listening devices.
But can Chinese government security concerns be extended to a social media app that focuses on videos?
When it comes to TikTok, Bytedance (TikTok’s parent company) has been explicit in stating that its app cannot be used for surveillance.
However, in December 2022, it was reported that there was evidence that TikTok had been used to spy on journalists in Forbes when he tracked several journalists by inappropriately accessing their IP addresses and user data in an effort to identify whether they were in the same locations as ByteDance employees.
TikTok’s ties to China
In the United States, Bytedance said its services are located in the United States and Singapore, and its data does not flow back to China.
But a recent report by US-Australian cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0 said the app’s data collection was “too intrusive” and pointed to a connection in the app to a server in mainland China. , operated by Guizhou BaishanCloud Technology Co Ltd.
Report says data TikTok can access on your phone includes device location, calendar, contacts and other running apps (The Guardian)
TikTok has defended itself and says its data practices comply with standards and practices.
“TikTok is an independent platform, with its own management team, comprising a CEO based in Singapore, a COO based in the US and a global head of trust and safety based in Ireland,“, the company said in a statement.
Should African governments be worried?
Cybersecurity remains a major issue, with most African countries exposed to security risks including ransomware attacks.
Currently, only 12 countries in Africa (Ghana included) have both a national cybersecurity strategy and national incident response capabilities. Ghana is also one of four countries to have ratified the Budapest and Malabo Conventions, two major treaties aimed at addressing the international dimensions of cyber threats.
Other African countries are lagging behind. Only 17 out of 54 African countries have developed a national cybersecurity strategy.
Currently, the median age of African countries is around 18 years old. As internet penetration increases and people gain more access to smart devices, security risks increase.
As TikTok grows, we will see more young Africans accessing the platform and if TikTok is a security risk, there could be big implications.
Right now, we’re paying close attention to what the US government is doing regarding TikTok. If they decide to ban the app altogether, it could have a ripple effect where other governments around the world will also scrutinize the app with regards to national security issues.
For now, African users can still watch videos on TikTok and become influencers. But they may need to consider the security implications in the future.