July 24, 2024

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Americans Are Worried About TikTok. They’re Missing the Point.

President Biden recently initiated an executive order to restrict the sale of sensitive personal data to countries including China and Russia. If you’ve been keeping up on privacy headlines recently, it’s clear that concern over Beijing-based Bytedance, owner of TikTok, is fueling legislative action in Washington surrounding the collection of digital data. 

Certainly, there are many reasons that we should be cautious about who has access to our personal data. I can tell you as an engineer who has focused my career on digital privacy, that we have a lot to be worried about. 

However, I also worry that vilifying or exclusively focusing on one privacy bad actor is distracting from other real and preventable privacy threats, which might be closer to home than many acknowledge. The government must take proactive steps to protect American data for national security, but all the same, Americans should be aware of the many domestic big tech players – including new entrants like OpenAI – that may threaten their digital privacy.

Take it From the Experts

If you’re not yet convinced that the aggressive attention towards TikTok could be pulling the wool over other privacy threats, consider this: in a recent poll Ghostery conducted of 2,000 Americans, 59% said TikTok was likely to abuse their data, and experts in the fields of programming and cybersecurity largely agreed. But when it came to companies like comScore and Adobe, hardly more than 30% of Americans identified them as privacy threats, while nearly half of programmers or cybersecurity experts did.

ComScore, for one, largely flies under the radar of the everyday American. However, according to WhoTracks, when considering the top 10,000 websites globally, ScoreCard Research Beacon (a tracker that belongs to comScore) is 2.56 times more prevalent than TikTok Analytics. ComScore has also been in the data-collecting game far longer, meaning it’s more likely to have a greater swath, or more comprehensive profile of your sensitive data, than TikTok. This is not to say that your data is safe with TikTok; it’s to say that it’s not safe in many other places, too.

The poll also revealed a concerning difference in the types of data threats that Americans are cognizant of. While everyday people and experts in fields knowledgeable about the online tracking landscape showed joint concern about the collection of their browser/search history, location data, and shopping data, the latter group indicated far higher concern for the collection of their health data and how their data may be used for political purposes.

If right now you’re thinking, “Oh no, should I be worried about my health data?” That’s the right reaction. Of the five most popular health websites according to Statista, all, including the NIH, host Google’s Doubleclick data-collecting ad tracker, meaning you could be advertised based on the conditions or medications you might be researching.

Few of us recognize just how significant and impactful the collection of our digital data can be. While an ad for that ugly pair of shoes you clicked on once may never stop following you around, political targeting based on data purchased about your age, gender, location, and sexual preferences may have far larger impacts on society as a whole.

What Can Be Done? Do as the Experts Do

After working in this field for so long, I’ve recognized that ignorance is bliss when it comes to the way most people approach data privacy. Data collection happens invisibly on the internet, powered by trackers that most people don’t understand or care much to spend their little free time learning about.

Unfortunately, ignoring the data collection issue is the same as subscribing to it because it’s the default state of the internet. Just as many of us strive to mimic the healthy habits of popular doctors, or take self-defense tips from skilled experts, we should look to what professionals in fields related to privacy and security are doing to protect themselves online and do the same.

First, go beyond the headlines and use the same free resources experts do to see what’s going on behind your web pages. Tools like WhoTracks.Me or Blacklight give you visibility into where otherwise invisible tracking is happening as you navigate the internet.

Then, take action. The best all-around and free tools to prevent data collection online are adblockers that block trackers and cookies, which store your personal information. While an impressive 52% of Americans now use an adblocker, that number grows to 72% and 76% for experienced programmers and cybersecurity experts, respectively. In a twist that’s slightly frustrating but certainly makes the point, even 66% of experienced advertisers use an adblocker on their device.

If they’re protecting themselves from the data-collection landscape they’ve designed, it should go without saying that you should too.

After all, you should be worried about TikTok’s data collection, but you should also be worried about the many other big tech privacy threats lurking and protect yourself accordingly.

Picture of By JP Schmetz

By JP Schmetz

JP Schmetz is a Stanford-educated computer scientist, the CEO of Ghostery, a board member of Brave, and Chief Scientist at Burda.

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