TikTok: Time’s up for smash-hit social media platform

July 10, 2020 / Data Privacy / By OPTF

TikTok. Depending on your age and technology habits, the hit social media app might be a complete enigma or a staple on your phone’s homescreen. But what is TikTok, where did it come from, and why is everybody talking about it?

What is TikTok?

If you’re over 30, odds are you’ve never tried TikTok. So what does it actually do?

Basically, TikTok is a social media platform where people can post short (3-60s) videos of themselves lip-syncing and dancing to music. You can edit the video, apply filters, and play around with the audio before you post it. You can also use TikTok to livestream from your phone camera. 

Outside of posting videos yourself, you can search or browse for other users, who you can then follow à la Instagram; your homescreen is a feed of videos from users you follow, along with other videos the TikTok algorithm thinks you might be interested in.

TikTok: Origins

TikTok started out as an app called A.me, launched by the Chinese internet tech company ByteDance in September 2016, intended for the Chinese market. A.me was rebranded to Douyin in December 2016, and the app started to take off in China, accruing more than 100 million users in under a year. 

ByteDance quickly realised they had a hit on their hands and launched a rebranded version of Douyin — TikTok — for international markets in September 2017. Just a few months later, ByteDance purchased competing short-form lipsync video platform Musical.ly, which had seen considerable success in the US market. ByteDance merged Musical.ly’s content and accounts with TikTok, and the new app, still under the name TikTok, skyrocketed to the top of the App Store and Play Store charts in the US and elsewhere around the world.

What’s the catch?

So, TikTok is a super-popular social platform where teenagers post videos of themselves singing and dancing to music. Harmless, except to TikTokers’ self-esteem when they look back on those videos in 20 years… right?

Not exactly.

Long story short, TikTok has recently been subject to serious criticisms of its data collection practices, with some countries going as far as to launch official government inquiries into the platform’s handling of user data, and whether TikTok violates local privacy laws in its countries of operation.

The app itself requests the following permissions when launched (these are the Android permissions; permissions requested on iOS are similar:

  • Camera

  • Microphone

  • Internet

  • WiFi (information about the device’s specific WiFi connection)

  • Contacts

  • Storage (read, modify, and delete contents of attached storage devices)

  • App History (retrieve a list of other running apps)

The app also requests a number of other standard permissions; for a full rundown, check out TikTok’s Google Play Store listing.

While some of these permissions might appear harmless — the app needs camera and mic access to record videos, for example — what has legislators concerned is a lack of transparency about what TikTok (and ByteDance) actually does with data it collects on individual users. Lawsuits have alleged that the app collects data including phone numbers, emails, location, IP addresses, and social network contacts, and more. And users (and legislators) have no real way of knowing what the app does with the data it hoards.

This permissions list doesn’t necessarily tell the full story, either. Apple’s recent iOS 14 update, which has just entered public beta, includes a new feature where iOS devices will alert users when an app reads data from the clipboard. This new alert has busted a number of apps that were reading clipboard data without informing the user, a practice which — while sometimes innocent — has worrying privacy implications. 

And you guessed it, TikTok is one of the worst offenders

TikTok reads clipboard data after every single keystroke you type while in the app — and there’s no way for a user to check or verify what’s being done with the data stolen from their clipboard. If you have a password or other sensitive information copied to your clipboard when you launch the app, it vacuums up that data. Pretty damn creepy.

TikTok: The bottom line

Depending on who you ask, TikTok is either the new hotness for social media, or a thinly-veiled data-sucking social monitoring platform. But at the end of the day, if you care about your privacy, don’t install TikTok. Other social media apps are bad enough — but this one takes invasion of privacy to a whole new level.

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