TikTok, the video-sharing app owned by ByteDance, has raised privacy concerns related to data mining.
  • TikTok is relatively safe despite some valid concerns; most cybersecurity experts consider it no worse a risk than other social media apps.
  • TikTok is an enormously popular social media site in which users create and share short-form videos.
  • The app has come under scrutiny for data mining and privacy concerns.
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TikTok is a popular social media app built around an enormous library of user-created short-form videos. Owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance, TikTok is projected to surpass 1 billion active monthly users in 2021 - that makes it one of the largest social media apps with roughly the same amount of activity as Instagram.

TikTok is relatively safe

Any social media company with that much reach is likely to undergo substantial scrutiny - Facebook, for example, has repeatedly come under fire for its privacy policies throughout its history. But TikTok has gotten outsized attention in the last few years. The Trump administration repeatedly sought to ban the app, citing the potential for ByteDance to share its trove of user data with the Chinese government. Even President Biden - as a candidate in the fall of 2020 - referred to TikTok as "a matter of genuine concern."

Many cybersecurity experts suggest keeping all this in perspective. "Of all the serious cyber risks facing the average consumer, TikTok isn't on the top of the list. Most Americans ought to be way more concerned about credit card fraud and password protection than TikTok," Monica Eaton-Cardone, co-founder and chief operating officer of Chargebacks911, said.

Chester Wisniewski, principal research scientist at Sophos, agreed: "TikTok doesn't pose any more risk to a user than any other social media sharing application. That isn't to say that there isn't risk, but it's not really different from Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram."

In fact, while politicians continue to discuss legislative actions against TikTok - Republican Senators Josh Hawley and Rick Scott introduced a bill in 2020 to ban all federal employees from using the app on government devices, for example - there's still little evidence of harm. Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate with Comparitech, was most critical of the climate against the app: "TikTok's supposed risks to national security were mostly, if not all, politically motivated embellishments with no evidence to back them up."

Concerns about TikTok

Bischoff's criticism notwithstanding, concern about TikTok isn't without some merit. Cybersecurity experts point to privacy issues like data mining, device permissions, and a potential risk to national security as common causes for concern.

Data mining

Like any social media app, TikTok collects data about its users - but the extent to which TikTok mines user data is extraordinary. Aliza Vigderman, a journalist at Security.org, said that TikTok can collect as many as 50 kinds of information from users 13 and older - everything from age, username, gender, and email address to details about your mobile device, content of messages, and tracking data about your online activities. Because the company shares information with "advertising, marketing, and analytics vendors," Vigderman assessed that "your information is not safe with TikTok."

App permissions

Similarly, many apps require users to agree to give permission to various aspects of the phone, and TikTok is no different. To use TikTok, a user must allow the app to access the microphone, camera, contacts, clipboard, and location service. To create content on the app, some of those permissions are clearly necessary - but others are not.

National security

Regarding national security concerns, it's unclear if TikTok poses a risk to the US. Clearly, many US politicians believe that China could use TikTok to spy on US citizens or mine their data, and some worry that data will be given to the Chinese government, as that's legal under Chinese laws. TikTok says it stores data from US users on servers in the US to shield them from Chinese government requests, but "there's some legal debate on whether or not the company would be subject to US or China laws regarding these servers," Vigderman said.

There's minimal risk for the average TikTok user

All things considered, "TikTok does not pose any particular risks to average users." That's the assessment of Brian Turner, chief technical officer of Convert Binary. His perspective echoes that of many other security experts who have evaluated the risks posed by the social media giant.

Certainly, there is potential for the substantial volumes of user data collected by TikTok to be shared with partners, but that's not substantially different than when using Facebook. Said Bischoff: "Yes, there are some risks in giving up personal information. But anyone who uses any major social network in the past 10 years has taken similar risks. There's nothing outstanding about TikTok except the fact that it's Chinese-owned. If your job makes you responsible for national security or trade secrets, then you might want to avoid making yourself a target and stay off the app."

How to mitigate potential risks of TikTok

While experts appear to largely agree that the risks from TikTok are minimal, the issue is certainly nuanced. "There's never been evidence of malicious intent from TikTok," said Aidan Fitzpatrick, CEO of Reincubate, "but it has a history of security infractions." For example, TikTok has been accused of collecting biometric data from minors without their consent, and ByteDance agreed to pay $92 million this year to settle a class action lawsuit over data privacy claims in the US.

In general, if you have concerns about any potential risks of using TikTok, your best bet may be to not use the app at all. Nonetheless, there are steps you can take to minimize the digital footprint you leave within TikTok.

Don't overshare: Don't use your full name or specify your age. Keep identifiable personal landmarks like street signs and schools out of view.

Make your account private: By setting your account to "private" in TikTok's settings menu, you need to approve anyone who tries to follow you, and only your friends can see the content you have liked.

Don't allow other users to find you: By default, TikTok shares your content with the entire app's community. To prevent that, you can turn off "Suggest your account to others" in settings.

Don't let other users interact with you: Also in TikTok's settings, you can disable privacy options like "Allow your videos to be downloaded" and to restrict "Who can send you direct messages" to just friends.

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