If you’ve been paying attention to the news recently, you’ll have been reading and hearing a lot about the rapidly growing social media app, TikTok, and privacy concerns from both security researchers and governments alike.
TikTok is a Chinese social media platform focusing on short, 60-second long videos and has become particularly popular with “Generation Z”. What’s surprising about TikTok is just how popular it has become in such a short amount of time. At the time of writing there are reportedly an approximate 800 million users worldwide.
However, in recent months TikTok has come under some intense scrutiny for privacy issues. This comes as a result of the app’s Chinese origin and the increasing tensions between China and Western countries. TikTok’s biggest critics are dubbing the app as a malicious threat towards its users, whereas contradictory opinions suggest that those concerns are exaggerated and are just another sign of the growing racism towards the Chinese people.
Aside from the political feelings towards the company, many experts have very specific concerns regarding specific functions of the app.
Let’s have a quick look at some of those concerns now:
1. Apple catches TikTok spying on the clipboard of iOS devices.
It was discovered that TikTok had been accessing data from millions of user’s clipboards. Tik Tok scrambled to give a response, blaming an outdated Google library within the app, then later changing their response to blame a function of the app designed to catch ‘repetitive spammy behaviour”.
It’s unclear exactly what the truth is or how the app uses the data it collects, but TikTok has now told reporters that a new version of the app was submitted to the app stores to remove this function.
This threat was initially discovered during beta testing on the new iOS 14 update which notifies users when an app is accessing the clipboard (data stored for copying and pasting). Along with TikTok, 53 other apps were also flagged for accessing clipboard data including the apps from lots of popular news outlets such as The WSJ, New York Times, Huffington Post and Vice News.
2. Employers start requiring employees to delete TikTok
Further to a lot of the recent claims against TikTok, many employers are now requiring their employees to delete the app from their phones and other work-related devices.
Many employers are also issuing warnings to their employees against using the app on company property during work hours. There are a slew of videos showing staff members of various supermarkets, restaurants and even public workers such as hospital staff and police officers doing dances and comedy sketches, etc. Most of the content on TikTok is harmless, but the issue comes from the unintended consequences, for example showing the ‘behind the scenes’ of private company operations.
Wells Fargo is one such company that directed its employees to remove TikTok from company devices because of privacy concerns and, to quote, “because corporate-owned devices should be used for company business only”.
It’s easy to see why this could be a security concern for many businesses.
3. US Government discusses banning the app.
Perhaps most astonishing is the fact that the US government is reportedly considering banning the app altogether. Then again, it’s not all that surprising given the rising tensions between China and the US. This follows an announcement from the Indian government that they will be banning TikTok and other Chinese apps (such as WeChat, etc) and a similar announcement from the US House of Representatives who voted to ban TikTok on all government-issued phones.
TikTok has hit back against the US stating that it is led by an American CEO – Kevin Mayer, the previous head of streaming at Disney and that it intends to hire at least 10,000 people in the US over the next three years.
For now, we’ll just have to see how this plays out as there is no current sign about what decision Donald Trump’s government will make.
So should YOU delete TikTok from your phone?
Ultimately, that’s a personal decision. It depends just how security conscious you are and whether or not your employer is requiring you to delete it.
If you choose NOT to delete the app, here are a few tips to help you stay protected:
1. Don’t sign up.
If you truly want to stay private on TikTok, but aren’t interested in posting content, then you can simply use the app without entering any of your personal information.
You will lose some features on the app, namely being able to post your own content as well as leaving comments and likes on other’s posts.
2. Don’t sign up using your main email address.
Alternatively, use a throwaway email address to create an account not linked to your other main accounts.
This way you can still use all the features of TikTok but negate most of the negative consequences.
3. Don’t reveal any personal information in your content.
If you intend to post content, avoid showing your face or any other private or personal information related to your identity. Although this may sound extreme, it ensures you can still use the app and not worry about security repercussions.
Security-minded users will even avoid using their real name.
4. Disable ‘Personalised ads’.
Finally, within the app itself, you can disable the personalized ads feature. This will prevent TikTok from collecting your data for advertising purposes.
Of course, this won’t stop the data collection altogether – TikTok will still track your location and device data (and more). However, this is no different from other social media apps such as Facebook and Instagram, etc.