TikTok and your privacy: What you need to know

April 1, 2022

The short-form video-sharing app TikTok* has become wildly popular with young people, but it’s losing fans among parents, businesses, and governments over privacy and security concerns.

TikTok — owned by ByteDance Inc., a Beijing-based social media company — has come under scrutiny for the information it gathers about users, how that information might be used, and who might have access to it.

The social media app has also raised concern about the types of harmful content kids can potentially access. Attorneys general from 43 states and Washington, D.C., recently asked TikTok and Snapchat about their security measures and parental controls.

“It’s very important for social media platforms to continually evaluate their community guidelines, because life is ever-changing, (and) threats are ever-changing,” said Paige Hanson, Chief of Cybersecurity Education at NortonLifeLock.

Should you be worried? It depends. Here’s what you need to know.

What is TikTok?

TikTok is a mobile app that lets you shoot, edit, and post videos, most often 15-seconds or less. Users broadcast themselves in often-entertaining clips that include lip-syncing to popular music, dancing, and animation.

Like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, TikTok is a social media platform. You can view other people’s videos, swiping from one to the next — endlessly. You can follow your favorites. And you can “like” and comment. Over time, a powerful algorithm pushes content to you based on your viewing history.

Worldwide, the TikTok app has been downloaded more than 1.2 billion times on mobile devices. It’s most popular with 13- to 24-year-olds. For those users under 13 years old, TikTok requires parental approval and provides limited access to the platform.

How does TikTok work?

Like other social media applications, you have to create an account to download the app. TikTok requires you to provide your phone number or email address. You can also sign up using a social media account such as Facebook.

You can create a personal profile with more information, but it’s not required.

When you sign up, your account is public by default. That means that anyone can view your profile, see videos you post, send messages, or access your regional location.

As with any app, it’s smart to adjust the privacy settings to limit how much of your sensitive information is exposed.

What are some of the privacy concerns related to TikTok?

When you use apps like TikTok, you provide information that is being collected and could potentially be available to the public. Here’s a partial list of what that might include.

  • Your contacts and their email addresses.
  • Your IP address which could indicate your geographic location.
  • Closeups of your face. This can provide biometric data that can be linked to other pictures of you outside the app.

How can I make my TikTok account more private?

Teenagers who use TikTok may not understand how much personal information they’re sharing and the potential consequences of that information being exposed. That’s why it’s a good idea for parents and families to know how to help younger users make their accounts more private. Here are some actions to consider.

  • Set the account to “private.”
  • Turn off “suggest your account to others.”
  • Change settings on who can comment, react, and duet to your videos in split images.
  • Change settings on who can send you direct messages.
  • Change who can download your videos and view your liked videos.

Can TikTok access Apple iOS clipboard data?

Apple developers testing its next operating system, iOS 14, recently found that the TikTok app could access clipboard data on its iPhones. 

iPhone users sometimes use the clipboard feature to copy sensitive information like passwords. That means TikTok could also access and potentially collect the data.

TikTok said its access was inadvertent and related to an anti-spam feature in the app. The company said it submitted an updated version of its app to the App Store to fix the problem. 

What should I do if I have TikTok on my iPhone?

It’s a good idea to update to the latest version of the TikTok app. Make sure your kids upgrade, too. This may be especially important if anyone in your family uses a Mac.

Why? Macs share clipboard contents between Macs and iOS devices — iPhones and iPads — that share the same Apple ID. That means you can copy on one Apple device and paste to another. It also means that before the latest update, TikTok could read the clipboard contents not only on your phone, but also on your Mac. It’s worth noting that researchers have found this practice happening across more than 50 other apps, including some related to news, travel, and gaming.

This is a security issue. For example, you might log into your bank’s website on your Mac by pasting your password from a password manager. That password would be copied over to your phone where TikTok could potentially read it and retain the information. 

What are other TikTok privacy concerns?

TikTok has been subject to a number of privacy concerns. One is whether TikTok might share or be forced to share information it collects with the Chinese government. TikTok says it would not share its data.

In recent months, however, government agencies and companies have taken steps to address privacy and security issues related to TikTok, including these.

  • In February 2019, TikTok agreed to pay a record $5.7 million fine to the Federal Trade Commission after it was alleged the app illegally collected personal information from children under 13 years old.
  • The Defense Department advised U.S. military personnel to remove TikTok from government-issued smartphones, and a number of military branches have mandated the deletion of the app, due to security concerns.
  • Wells Fargo Bank directed employees to remove TikTok from company-owned devices due to concerns about TikTok’s privacy and security controls and practices.

Should I remove TikTok from my smartphone?

Whether or not to remove the TikTok app from your smartphone is a personal decision. As with any app, it’s important to read privacy policies and manage your privacy settings.

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