From 2020, TikTok has become a global social media sensation. TikTok is an app where users share short form videos of them dancing, singing, vlogging, and participating in challenges etc. However, recently, the United States, Europe, and Canada have named this app as a threat to their national security and are making efforts to ban or restrict access to it in their countries.

TikTok is popular in South Africa with over nine million people using it. This article aims to give a breakdown of the consequences of a possible TikTok ban and what data rights and protections you have regarding both TikTok and in the broader social media space.

Why does the US, Europe, and Canada want to ban TikTok?

TikTok is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance and this ownership has raised scepticism with the US government. It is reported that the US has told ByteDance to sell TikTok or face a possible ban in the US. The ultimatum seems a bit drastic to the layman, but it stems from the US’ concerns about national security in respect of the data TikTok accumulates.

Cell phones often share sensitive user data such as IP addresses, locations, contact lists and payment information with social media apps such as TikTok. US officials believe there is a chance that TikTok could be used by the Chinese government to collect information on US citizens as China has legislation requiring companies in China to confidentially turn over any information requested by the Chinese government. Therefore, China may legally obtain information on millions of US citizens who use TikTok, giving China the ability to possibly spy on users, influence users, or censor certain information on TikTok.

As an individual enjoying social media should you be worried about another entity having access to your information?

Yes, to an extent, you should be worried. Many social media apps take precautions to ensure that your data is stored securely and is inaccessible to any third party who should not have access to it. However, some apps do fall short of putting these precautions in place.

South African legislation has certain safety nets in place for you to exercise a degree of control over who has access to your data. Unlike the United States, our legislation speaks directly to the protection of data subjects’ personal information and what entities are allowed to do with such information. The laws in South Africa that cover cyber protection and the protection of your personal information include: The Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA), the Electronic Communications Act (ECTA), the Cybercrimes Act, and the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication Related Information Act (RICA).

POPIA is aimed at addressing the protection of personal information and applies to all organisations and businesses collecting and processing personal information of South African citizens. This includes businesses such as TikTok.

POPIA’s principles include:

  • collection of personal information must be done in a manner that is lawful and fair to the data subject;
  • limited use requiring  the information collected to only be used for the purpose for which it was originally intended”;
  • obtaining the data subject’s informed consent for processing; and
  • transparency, which requires openness where the processing of personal information is involved.

POPIA also limits the transfer of personal information across the South African border to prevent organisations from circumventing the data protection legislation. The cross-border transfer of data is only permitted with the consent of the data subject and if the recipient country is governed by data regulation similar to the POPIA principles. If the recipient country is not subject to such regulations, a contractual relationship can be drafted.

On the other hand, ECTA, through section 86, criminalises various cyber acts related to hacking and unlawfully accessing or editing data. ECTA contains protections to ensure that any unauthorised access to your data is prosecuted.

South Africa also has the newly enacted Cybercrimes Act which creates offences and imposes penalties on cybercrimes which include the illegal interception of data. This Act also sets out mechanisms by which investigators can search and seize computer hardware, software and storage devices. Seeing that cybercrimes can transcend borders, this Act describes how South African authorities should conduct international investigations and how states should cooperate and share information through mutual assistance.

Despite South Africa’s safety net legislation, protecting your privacy falls very much on your shoulders too.

If you are using TikTok and other social media platforms that have access to your data, you should start by restricting your apps’ permissions to accessing sensitive information such as your location, IP address, and contact list. It is also very important to remove your payment/bank details from these apps. Make sure your privacy settings are as tight as possible and make your profiles private.

It is also important to familiarise yourself with the apps’ terms and conditions and know what data the app wants to access and what it wants to do with it.

As a person who is generating income on social media should you be worried about TikTok being banned and possibly losing your income?

Governments and other institutions are empowered to ban apps on devices and networks used within their borders. However, a broader South African government-imposed restriction stopping citizens from accessing an app is unforeseeable. Such a ban could grossly impact peoples’ livelihoods and could be challenged on constitutional grounds.

However, if TikTok is banned by the US and Europe, it will have a global impact on the use of the app.

“Privacy is dead, and social media hold the smoking gun.”  – Pete Cashmore, CEO of Mashable

It is important for individuals to educate themselves and be aware of where their personal data is going and what it is being used for. Apps on our phones have access to sensitive information and we need to be aware of where that information is stored and how it is being used. Though the South African legislation protects us where our data has been obtained unlawfully, there is little to assist us if the information was obtained legally. In the midst of our joyful use of social media apps, we must not forget to be informed and cognisant.