Does TikTok Pose a Security Threat?

The social media platform TikTok came to the US in August 2018 and quickly became a massive hit. Primarily used by teenagers, the app has an estimated 65 million users in the US alone. Since the pandemic began, many more users of all ages have joined TikTok to participate in its many viral challenges.

As the app becomes more popular by the day, news continues to spread claiming that the privacy and security of users is compromised. These warnings have led several organizations to ban the use of TikTok on devices used for work, including Amazon, Wells Fargo, and all branches of the US military. President Trump even stated that he was considering a nationwide ban of the app (something that India and other countries have already implemented).

But how big of a security threat really is TikTok? There are currently several aspects of the app that are being critiqued for their lack of security.

Security Concerns

In February of 2019, TikTok had to pay a large fine for collecting personal information of users under the age of 13. Then in October, an investigation was launched into the creators of TikTok, ByteDance, which originates in Beijing, due to rising concerns on how their data was being used. The US government has expressed concern that the information could be used to spy on Americans and influence political decisions.

In a beta test of Apple’s iOS 14, it was also discovered that TikTok had been secretly accessing users’ notes app and clipboards. The company quickly updated the feature so it no longer recorded this information.

Concerns generally focus on the app’s ability to collect and store personal information coupled with the app’s Chinese ownership, leading to increased nervousness that the app could be used to spy for political reasons.

Those who are afraid of the app’s lack of security on a personal level don’t actually have reasons to be overly worried. IT experts have stated that the risk of using TikTok is about equal to that of using any other social media platform.

That risk can be significant (Remember the 50 million-user breach Facebook suffered in 2018?), but it’s not more risky than using the apps most Americans engage with on a daily basis. Although it is important to note that any personal information posted on social media can be used in password and spear phishing attacks against you, as one IT company in Houston notes, so to be cautious, you should not post identifying information or personal details on public platforms.

The concern we should actually be focused on is the possibility of large-scale data collection about demographics in the United States. That type of “spying” is much more likely than personal attacks, and it is very possible for data to be collected about large populations.

Other Dangers Associated with TikTok

In addition to cybersecurity concerns, there have also been several other potentially dangerous challenges and effects associated with TikTok:

Dangerous Viral Challenges

There have been several dangerous challenges trending on TikTok that have put innocent people in harm’s way. For example, “the Cha Cha Slide challenge” encouraged drivers to drive on the wrong side of the road and swerve sporadically as they followed the instructions of the song (“slide to the left . . . criss cross”). The challenge encouraged extremely dangerous driving and had the potential to cause cars to veer between lanes and crash into other vehicles.

Censorship

A study undertaken by The Intercept showed that “TikTok told moderators to suppress posts by “ugly” people and the poor to attract new users.” Moderators were instructed to decrease the reach of videos showing “rural poverty, slums, beer bellies, and crooked smiles.” This effectively punished users who are poor or less attractive “by artificially narrowing their audiences.”

Stranger Danger

Finally, while TikTok claims they have a zero tolerance on child abuse or sexual exploitation, the app continues to see a massive number of young girls receiveing disturbing messages from older men. When an account is created the user profile is automatically set to public rather than private, and this could contribute to many users being the subject of sexual exploitation and bullying.

With the app being banned in India, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, and many countries threatening to ban it for the safety of their people, do you think it’s safe to use?

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