Is TikTok Safe to Use?
By Nick Anderson 5 minutes
TikTok has been a victim of a series of privacy and security concerns due to its data collection practices. The app is a global phenomenon. It has spawned a community of content creators who have found a home through making videos. The platform has given a spotlight to the talented videos which continue to entertain millions of followers with lip-syncing and humorous content. But recent revelations have put a question mark on the social networking service’s stance on privacy.
It has caught the attention of the U.S government, who has cautioned against the use of the service. Pertaining to matters of national security, the U.S government has strictly prohibited the use of TikTok for its officers. More than that, the app has been observed to collect data in a manner that’s simply excessive.
TikTok and Privacy
Social media platforms are a double-edged sword. They have allowed people to connect and share meaningful conversations and memories. Businesses have found a calling on some platforms; they use social media’s reach to engage with people searching for relevant goods and services. And for the most part, social media platforms are a reminder of technology’s foray into making our lives convenient.
But such versatility comes at the cost of privacy. Social media is a honeypot for personal information; people share to discuss and relate to others. Data collection is a common practice among social media platforms to understand a user’s behavior better and provide a tailored experience. They would even say that it’s to improve the service. However, social media giants are not always transparent about what and how much they collect.
TikTok has been the subject of controversy over the past of couple of months. And the revelation that the app is secretly collecting data such as clipboard content didn’t help TikTok’s case.
Clipboard is a feature in iOS that holds your selected text in memory for pasting. Apple released the beta for its upcoming iOS 14 update last month. Building on previous update’s privacy-focused features, iOS 14 tells you when an app tries to access something. For example, iOS 13 notified users when the Facebook app tries to access Bluetooth of your iPhone. This revelation actually dates back to March, when TikTok promised to fix it when the matter came to light. However, that has not happened, as the launch of iOS 14 has uncovered.
At first, it seemed like the U.S government was restricting the use of TikTok due to diplomatic tensions – but that hasn’t turned out to be correct. A Reddit user was able to reverse engineer the app. More than collecting information about the hardware type, network, and location, TikTok sends encrypted analytics reports back to its servers. If you were to block these requests, the app would refuse to function. It has also been confirmed by an independent research firm.
Analytics reporting is a standard way of knowing the health and performance of an app. But not knowing what exactly the app is collecting is unsettling on top of the preceding privacy concerns.
Concerns Over Safety for Children
Outside of data collection, there have been reports where the platforms have been used to target underage girls. It’s scary – perhaps more than anything else about TikTok. The implications of predators using the app to target minors is backed by evidence.
In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission(FTC) hit TikTok with a $5.7 million penalty over failure to comply with COPPA. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is a law that protects the privacy of users below the age of 13. It directs services to ensure parental consent before collecting data of such users. The case concluded that Musical.ly (now known at TikTok) failed to follow protocol despite knowing many of its users were under the legal age.
Lack of Encryption
One of the criticisms surrounding the platform was its use of HTTP for content delivery. It was observed that TikTok relies on unsecure connection to the user to deliver content on the feed. Although this approach is faster, it leaves a huge vulnerability. The lack of encryption means that a third-party such as a malicious actor on a public Wi-Fi or the ISP, can see what videos you have requested.
Encryption is very important and a key pillar of VPN. FastestVPN protects internet communication with the AES 256-bit encryption standard. It means that data transmission is safe from prying eyes. You can learn more about HTTPS and why is matters in our blog.
What Can You Do?
As we discussed, social media platforms are a double-edged sword. There is still much we don’t know about TikTok’s data collection. TikTok is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance. China is one of the countries that practice draconian surveillance and censorship laws. It’s not much about TikTok’s data collection as it’s about the service giving the Chinese government access to user data under compliance with government regulations, or its ability to prevent a data breach.
You – the user – is in control of what information you choose to submit to TikTok. If you’re just looking to browse videos, then a fake name and email address is a good idea. Please pay attention to what the kids are using on their phones; keep TikTok out of their reach. Install parental restrictions so that only you can install new apps.
Set the profile to private so that only approved connections can access videos.
There will always be privacy concerns regardless of which social media platform you use. It will come down to which platform collects the least data and is more capable of protecting your information. It’s a conscious decision that you alone can make. Several people have announced withdrawal from the app, but if you find yourself hard pressed to hit the uninstall button, follow our tips to improve privacy.