The government of India has announced a ban on 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok, WeChat, and ShareIt among many more. It's a national security response, and seemingly a retaliation against a clash of Indian and Chinese troops last month that resulted in 20 Indian casualties.
The ban is a big blow for the popular video-based social networking app, given that India was, up until now, TikTok's biggest market by far.
It is also a significant step in the increasingly tense India-China relationship, and a reminder that TikTok truly is a data privacy nightmare due to the massive amounts of data that its users may not all be aware they are giving up.
How the ban works
India has long been skeptical of TikTok, having already removed it from app stores in April 2019 to prevent further downloads before returning it to app stores a month later. At that time, the reason cited was a fear of the spread of pornography on the app.
The latest announcement gives a more severe concern. A press release from the Ministry of Information Technology stated that the 59 apps in question were a threat to public order:
“The Ministry of Information Technology, invoking its power under section 69A of the Information Technology Act read with the relevant provisions of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking of Access of Information by Public) Rules 2009 and in view of the emergent nature of threats has decided to block 59 apps since in view of information available they are engaged in activities which is prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.”
The ministry further clarified their stance, too, accusing the apps of “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users' data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India.” The apps were banned across Android as well as iOS.
The full list of banned apps
TikTok's popularity had been waning slightly following the border incident with China – the app fell from being the fifth most popular free app on the App Store to just tenth most popular.
Still, TikTok was huge in India, with 611 million lifetime installs at the latest count, a number which represents a whopping 30.3 percent of TikTik's total downloads worldwide.
TikTok's data privacy history
The ministry's statement is far from the first accusation of poor practices from TikTok, even while it is a particularly strong condemnation.
In March, researchers found TikTok had helped itself to iOS users' clipboard data, which can include highly sensitive information like passwords, personal messages, and even account-reset links. TikTok swore it would stop, but as Ars Technica reported two days ago, it has not.
“It's very, very dangerous,” researcher Tommy Mysk said on Friday of the app's access to sensitive information.
“TikTok is a data collection service”
One developer has reverse engineered TikTok to learn more about its data collection process, writing about the findings on Reddit two months ago.
According to this research, the app will hoover up data about your phone's hardware specs, everything related to your network, whether or not the device is jailbroken, what other apps have been installed on the device, and for some variants of the app, even the device's GPS location.
“TikTok is a data collection service that is thinly-veiled as a social network. If there is an API to get information on you, your contacts, or your device… well, they're using it,” the developer writes.
Interestingly, the developer included a comeback to one common response — whether or not TikTok is worse than Facebook, another social platform app that has faced pushback on its data collection practices.
“For what it's worth I've reversed the Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter apps. They don't collect anywhere near the same amount of data that TikTok does, and they sure as hell aren't outright trying to hide exactly what's being sent like TikTok is. It's like comparing a cup of water to the ocean — they just don't compare.”
TikTok is a phenomenon in 2020, driving cultural change among gen Zers with bizarre “cults,” challenges, and political activism.
Still, according to these claims, its utter lack of data privacy means that you should not download the app.
And now — unless they're well versed in which VPNs can get around the ban — that's not a choice that India's social media lovers will have to worry about.