The time is ticking for the most downloaded App on the App store.
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past year, you must have heard of the popular social media platform, TikTok. The social networking app has taken the internet by storm, with people of any age (but primary youngsters) sharing their short videos (also referred to as TikToks). Influencers too started flocking to this new platform, and many average Joes got catapulted to stardom in no time.
In fact, TikTok statistics are rather impressive, considering that it has exited less than four years. The App is one of the most downloaded application on the App Store with 1.5 billion downloads. It has more than 800 million active users worldwide and is available in 155 countries. At the moment, it is the 7th most popular social networking application in the world.
However, this surge in popularity might not be long-lived. We have recently seen a massive drive by many governments to ban the App from their country. President Donald Trump just started an online campaign to ask people to sign a petition calling for the ban on TikTok. US lawmakers have expressed concern over potential national security issues. The Pentagon also went a step further by warning military personnel and asking them to delete TikTok from all their devices.
India decided to ban the App a few days ago, which was a big blow for TikTok, considering that they had 600 million downloads from India alone. The UK also seems to be considering a similar ban, and of course, other countries will follow.
A legitimate question you might be asking at this stage is why there are so many countries pushing for a ban? First of all, there is a political reason. TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, and as such, these countries are not comfortable having their citizens’ data stored in a foreign country. However, there are other, more sinister and worrying reasons.
Experts who analysed and reverse engineered the App dubbed it as a data collection service veiled as a social network. The reason is that when you use TikTok, the company is also gathering information such as;
- Details about your phone,
- Information about other apps,
- List of deleted apps,
- Networking information, including your device address and the network you’re using and
- Your worldwide location updated every 30 seconds.
The scariest part of this is that the App is fully configurable remotely. This means that someone who works for TikTok can decide which information to access from your device when they want. It is as if you leave the front door of your house open and invite anyone to walk in and take whatever they like.
Another scary option which was enabled on the Android version of the App gives TikTok the ability to upload a compressed file on your device, open it, and execute it. So practically they can run any program they want without your permission. Of course, there is no legit reason under the sun why a social networking app should possess that functionality.
TikTok also suffered from a lack of security features. The communication protocols they used between the App and the serves were not secure. In simple terms, this means that emails, names, birthdays and loads of other information were all publicly viewable by anyone.
The App also plays on the ingenuity of people. The first TikTok which anyone posts, will automatically generate quite a bit of “likes”, irrespective whether it is good or not. This gives users (especially the younger ones) a false sensation of fame, and thus gets users to keep on posting on the site. In reality, this is just an illusion and only a mechanism to get people to return back.
But maybe the scariest of them all is that the system also claims to have a moderation mechanism. This is aimed at curbing abuse on the website. However, a quick search on TikTok quickly reveals some really suspect stuff with creepy old men dancing with children to the sound of sexually suggestive songs. And guarantee sleepless nights, don’t forget that the App also offers direct messaging functionality available at the tip of a button.
Of course, one might ask about the other Social Networking sites. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the rest also collect information about their users, but it is nothing compared to what TikTok gathers. TikTok is not only accumulating the data, but it is going to great lengths to try to conceal this collection. This suggests that they are aware of what they’re doing. They know that many countries, like European countries, have strict Data Protection rules, and the App is trying to hide its own footsteps.
In the security world, some experts went as far as dubbing TikTok malware (A software intentionally designed to cause damage to a computer). Worst of all, it is specifically targeting children. So it isn’t surprising that many countries are trying to ban it. If you value your privacy, be careful when you or your loved ones use such an App. Before you realise it, personal data will be siphoned from your device without your consent, and it will be too late to get it back!
Prof Alexiei Dingli is a Professor of AI at the University of Malta. He has been conducting research and working in the field of AI for more than two decades, assisting different companies to implement AI solutions. His work has been rated World Class by international experts and he won several local and international awards (such as those by the European Space Agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the United Nations to name a few). He has published several peer-reviewed publications and formed part of the Malta.AI task-force which was setup by the Maltese government, aimed at making Malta one of the top AI countries in the world.