BILLINGS — With 1 billion monthly users, TikTok is one of the most popular social media platforms in the world.
But the Chinese-owned app is facing heightened criticism and even bans, as US-China relations sour amidst accusations of spying.
In the shadow of a high-profile international spying incident, TikTok's key audience is unfazed.
"I was like 'oh, wow, balloons,' whatever," said MSU-Billings freshman Matt Aniah-Short.
"I'm not scared of balloons," said MSU-Billings freshman Elijah Sneigoski. "If there's something up in the sky that looks a little weird, I'll let the government take care of it however they need."
With 3.5 billion downloads, the video creation and sharing platform is a global phenomenon, especially with young Americans under the age of 25.
"I feel like here in the United States, people use it much more," said Diego Charletpons, a student from Spain in his second year at MSUB. "Back at home people use it much less, but here people use it a lot."
TikTok was developed by Chinese engineer Zhang Yiming in 2012 and the app's parent company, ByteDance, is headquartered in Beijing.
Across the United States, there is growing concern amongst some lawmakers that the Chinese government could be using the app to mine a broad spectrum of data from Americans—concerns only heightened by the suspect Chinese spy balloon.
"I do believe that with the fact that it's a Chinese-owned corporation that a lot of information potential or already has been leaked," says MSUB sophomore Diego Dominguez.
On the MSU Billings campus, it's hard to find a student who doesn't use TikTok, but the app itself is banned from use on university networks and devices.
The Montana University System issued the ban at the request of Gov. Greg Gianforte, who banned the app from all state offices, devices, and networks in mid-December.
But students say they are finding ways around the ban by switching from wifi to cellular data, saying it's mostly just an inconvenience.
The same students say they don't see why TikTok gets so much heat. To them, it is no more concerning than other social media platforms when it comes to data and privacy security.
"Facebook has been proven even more than TikTok to have taken data, used external sources to give the content that you are after what they think you're after," Sneigoski said.
"It's just as bad as all the other ones," Domniguez said. "All of them have really bad data mining problems, a lot of people in general can easily get back-doored into the apps themselves and get a lot of personal information about people."
In 2018, Facebook admitted to selling user data to Chinese tech giant Huawei as well as the British consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, in 2013.
Rep. Ken Bogner, a Republican from Miles City, spends a lot of legislative effort on cyber security and data privacy.
"It matters because it's a part of who we are," Bogner said. "We now have a digital footprint and that data is ours. How we access it and who accesses it is really important, and we need to make sure that it is clear that it is ours and there needs to be adequate permission to access that data."
To Bogner, the problem with TikTok is the same as other social media websites—taking users information without consent.
"They're private companies, so they're on the same playing field," Bogner said. "You should know what you're giving up when you download and make an account on these apps."
But Bogner still sees the spy balloon as a wake-up call for Americans, over data privacy and security.
"It's one thing to say, 'hey, the Chinese or someone is spying on your phone' when you don't actually see it. But when there's a physical object over your home, it just hits different."