TikTok is the world's fastest growing app, described by many users as addictive and hard to put down. But it is also the app that collects the most data about its users. Recently, there has been a critical focus on and discussions about whether TikTok's handling of user data poses a security risk. We dive into that in this article.
But let's start with the basics about TikTok.
What is TikTok?
TikTok is a social media and video sharing app where users can create and share short videos of up to 60 seconds duration. It is the fastest growing app in the world with more than 800 million active users. Described by many as a mix of Snapchat, YouTube and Instagram, TikTok is an entertainment medium.
On TikTok, it is possible to reach a large audience, and the app is thus created to spread the content to as many viewers as possible in a short time. The algorithm is built to reward users who are particularly active and frequently post content by spreading their content.
The videos themselves can be accompanied by music or user-created audio, text, animations and filters, and the basic premise of the app is to create engaging content and interact through likes, comments and shares. Although the app is popular among children and young people, it also has a large adult audience, and many celebrities can also be found on TikTok.
TikTok is known for spreading content that goes viral and creating trends through challenges and tutorials. The purpose of TikTok is for others to see the videos you create and share.
TikTok is created and owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance and launched on the market outside China in 2017.
TikTok's collection of data
The safety aspects of TikTok have been widely criticized and the app has been accused of spreading misinformation, violating data protection rules and failing to adequately protect children on the platform.
In particular, the app's handling of users' sensitive personal data has come under scrutiny. TikTok collects more data about users than other apps.
This data includes information about e.g:
- WiFi network
- Your mobile phone's SIM card number
- Your contacts
- Your calendar
- Search history and clipboards
- Access to your camera roll
- Your location
- What other apps you have installed on your device
- Face and voice recognitions
- Keystroke logging
Why it is problematic
Much of the debate is about whether TikTok can be used for espionage and thus pose a threat to national security, which is why several countries have banned TikTok on the devices of government employees.
Employees of the company behind TikTok, ByteDance, can access the medium's user data. In addition, ByteDance is subject to Chinese security legislation, which gives the Chinese authorities the power to collect information from Chinese companies. In other words, the Chinese government can potentially demand user data from ByteDance, which cannot oppose the demand. And the company is suspected to have already done so.
This may lead some users to think that the app does not pose a security risk to them personally at an individual level and that they are not at risk of a data breach. However, while you may think you have nothing to hide, it is the amount and types of data the app collects that poses a security risk to users.
Several experts point out that TikTok can use the different pieces of information it has access to to create an overall profile of who the user is. And the problem is that we don't know where this information ends up. Potentially, user data could be sold on data exchanges, where anyone from companies and states to intelligence services could in principle buy it.
Center for Cyber Security's latest recommendation regarding TikTok
On the first of March 2023, the Danish Center for Cyber Security (CFCS) issued its latest recommendation regarding TikTok, following recent debates about the security of the medium. The recommendation was that the CFCS advises against TikTok on official devices used by government employees.
The recommendation is based on the reasoning that TikTok requires very broad rights and access on the device, which allows the app to collect a wide range of data that can be linked to the user's identity. In addition, the current debate about whether the data sources that TikTok is able to collect can be used to conduct espionage is particularly critical when it comes to government employees.
However, a spokesperson from TikTok has stated that outright bans on the use of the app, which have been seen on employee devices in, for example, the European Parliament and a large number of US states, are based on unfounded fears and driven by a geopolitical agenda, according to an article from the news media CNBC. At the same time, the spokesperson emphasizes that they have taken further steps to protect European user data.
For individuals using apps, including TikTok, the CFCS recommends that you are aware of what accesses an app asks for and what data it collects. They recommend that you do not download or use apps from suppliers you do not trust. It is thus up to the individual user to assess whether or not they should have the app on their phone.
Is TikTok safe or not?
It is not easy to answer whether TikTok is safe or not. However, according to a report by cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0, TikTok collects more data about its users than other apps, and it remains to be seen where this data ends up. In this way, TikTok is not safe to use.
Of course, TikTok is not the only app that collects sensitive data about its users - the vast majority of apps do. That's why it's important to be critical of the data handling of any app you have installed on your device and to regularly review your data collection settings and make sure that as many as possible are turned off.
There are many considerations to take into account before choosing to download TikTok and create a user. But in general, limiting your privacy settings and using common sense is a good place to start if you want to be more safe on social media.
- Redbarnet.dk, "What is TikTok?"
- Nyheder.tv2.dk, "Nu forbydes Tiktok flere steder - og det er er er god grund til, siger eksperter"
- CFCS.dk, "CFCS' recommendation regarding TikTok"
- CNBC.com, "UK's National Cyber Security Centre reviewing TikTok risks, minister says"
- Malcore, by Internet 2.0, "TikTok Scores 63.1 - Designed to Collect Data with highest Malcore score in Industry"
Emilie Hartmann is a student and copywriter at Moxso, where she is a language nerd and always on the lookout for new and exciting topics to write about. She is currently doing her Master's in English, where she is primarily working in the fields of Creative Writing and Digital Humanities.