Security clock is ticking amid TikTok fears

Privacy concerns fueled the move by the US to roll out a ban on government employees using the social media app

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has hinted that he may ban the social media application TikTok from devices used by government employees.

His comments follow similar bans by the European Commission and US federal government.

In the cases involving the European Union and the United States, security concerns were used as the justification for a ban. Unlike Facebook or Instagram, which are part of US-based Meta, TikTok is owned by ByteDance, which is based in China.

Such concerns are not new. In October 2022, the former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described his fear that China could compel TikTok to act as a “Trojan horse”, accessing and exploiting sensitive data.

Like many social media applications, TikTok collects significant amounts of user data including dates of birth, email addresses and telephone numbers.

Discussions around privacy in social media apps usually concern the excessive collection of information that users consent to hand over. TikTok’s privacy policy allows the app to collect user location data, up to a granularity of three square kilometers.

Malicious parties

This is quite coarse. Instagram, for example, allows for more precise location tracking for personalized advertisements. But the risk is that, if exposed, location data could be used by malicious parties to track users, enabling behavior such as intimate partner stalking.

This kind of location data was involved in an alleged effort by TikTok employees – who were subsequently reported to have been sacked – to track US-based journalists in a bid to catch leaks from inside the company.

In an email published by Forbes magazine, ByteDance Chief Executive Rubo Liang wrote that he was “deeply disappointed” by the episode.

Access to user data enables businesses to build profiles for specific users. The increasing availability to the public of software tools using machine learning – a type of AI or Artificial Intelligence – has caused alarm among some cybersecurity analysts.

These experts are concerned about the potential use of this technology for “targeted phishing attacks”. In these attacks, victims receive a communication, such as an email, that impersonates a trusted source, prompting the victim to engage in a scam.

TikTok was launched as a trendy short-video app. Photo: File

Social media applications have significant knowledge of their users. So it’s entirely plausible that building a profile from user data could enable targeted phishing attacks on sensitive government accounts. But, there is no evidence TikTok has been used for this purpose.

ByteDance has responded to recent bans by saying it has not provided user data to the Chinese government. It also claims that its data collection practices align with those of other social media companies.

A cursory comparison with the privacy policy of Instagram supports this view. The information collected from Facebook and Instagram generally matches the information TikTok collects. Some criticisms of apps such as TikTok have centered on a claim that they function as spyware.

The goal of spyware, in comparison to data collection, is to extract confidential or sensitive information that users did not consent to provide. For instance, spyware may target data that the user has copied into the clipboard of their device.

Using complex and unique passwords for every online account is recommended. So people who are concerned about privacy will often use password managers such as LastPass or 1password.

Yet these users are likely to copy and paste the complex password from their password manager into an account’s login mechanisms. Extracting clipboard information allows those with malicious intent to recover passwords and access sensitive accounts.

Source code

TikTok is a “closed-source application”, which means the source code – the underlying instructions – used to build the application is not available.

Yet there have been efforts to reverse-engineer its source code to determine whether the app behaves as spyware, or otherwise collects user data in ways that are excessive.

A report by Citizen Lab Research described the reverse-engineering of an Android-distributed version of TikTok. It concluded: “TikTok … [does] not appear to exhibit overtly malicious behavior” such as that displayed by spyware.

Furthermore, the report said that while it collects a wide variety of data and usage pattern information, these “characteristics are not exceptional when compared to industry norms.”

It is reasonable to conclude that Tiktok itself does not necessarily present a much greater risk in this regard than other US-based social media applications, a conclusion shared by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

ByteDance is the parent company of TikTok. Photo: File

The bans prompted ByteDance to strengthen privacy protection for users. Specifically, it announced Project Clover, which outlines strategies for improving European data security.

Project Clover proposes a so-called European Enclave, which aims to guarantee that ByteDance employees cannot access or transfer European user data externally without complying with data protection laws such as GDPR.

It would also be overseen by a third-party European security company – discussions between ByteDance and this third party are ongoing.

ByteDance has also proposed two mechanisms for anonymizing user data, the goal of which is to ensure that any malicious parties that wanted to access TikTok data could not exploit it for phishing or other types of attack.

The first approach is to “pseudonymize” personal data collected from users to align with Article 4(5) of GDPR. This would require the data to be processed in such a way that it cannot be linked to specific users without additional, external information.

Data collection

ByteDance will also aggregate information from users in large data sets, achieving anonymity by separating the details from a particular user’s profile.

So, the TikTok ban from the European Commission highlights a growing perception from governing bodies that it and other applications could potentially harm user security and privacy through targeted and excessive data collection.

While this has caused ByteDance to propose strengthened privacy protections, users must wait for these to materialize, and for experts to verify them.

In the meantime, the onus remains on users to manage their own privacy and decide for themselves whether the risks presented by social media apps like TikTok are worth the value they provide.

Benjamin Dowling is a Lecturer of Cybersecurity at the University of Sheffield in the UK.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.