Beijing-based company ByteDance owns the app, but make no mistake: TikTok is a global phenomenon.
Over the past year, the viral video sharing platform has exploded in growth and come to infiltrate almost every area of culture, reshaping everything from daytime talk shows to the music industry to political activist movements. TikTok currently boasts over 800 million users, more people than belong to the Buddhist religion worldwide.
TikTok was huge even before the absolute hellscape of 2020 descended upon us, but in the age of coronavirus, TikTok has tapped into something deep and essential, something true about us. Though it shares a common ancestor with cult favorite (and now defunct) video-sharing platform Vine, it has managed to break into the upper echelon of cultural relevancy in a way that Vine never quite managed – and in the process, it’s become one of the most valuable marketing tools on earth. Part of TikTok’s success is attributable to the toughness of this current moment, the fact that we are starved for social interaction in an age of social distancing. Part of it has to do with its versatility, as the app can be used to share both silly videos and serious political messages.
But the core of it is the immersive and interactive user experience, the way the app almost flows around you and seems to cradle you while you scroll through it. It’s a masterclass in user-friendly, intuitive design. It’s a source of much-needed laughter and moments of joy, a way to see humanity at its delightful best. It’s a way to be inspired, rather than discouraged, by the activities of your fellow man. It’s a constant companion to us in our lonely leisure hours. Entire evenings can be whiled away just scrolling through the app’s endlessly refreshing, eternally entertaining feed of videos.
Instant TikTok fame is not uncommon, and teens with the right dance moves can become “TikTok famous,” garnering invites to popular daytime talk shows and showing off their TikTok routines with giddy hosts.
Everyone from celebrities to single dads to housecats has a chance to go viral.
But there’s a dark side to TikTok, as we are coming to learn.
And that dark side has to do with the seriously shady practice of reading and copying user data, which the Telegraph reported back in March. TikTok was just one of many applications discovered to be reading users’ clipboards, usually without their knowledge. (Technically legal, but practically devious. After all, how many of us bother to actually read the terms and conditions when we install a new app on our phone?)
Other popular apps like AccuWeather, Overstock, Call of Duty Mobile, Patreon, and, of course, Google News were all found to be eavesdropping on both Android and iOS users. ByteDance told Forbes back in March that the sketchy reading-and-copying behavior was thanks to an outdated Google advertising SDK, and that the SDK was soon to be replaced.
TikTok assured us the spying would stop in a few weeks as new updates and changes took effect on the app.
But guess what? It’s now four months later, and the spying still hasn’t stopped.
Jeremy Burge, Emojipedia’s chief emoji officer – and yes, that’s his real job title – revealed on Twitter last week that TikTok was still reading and copying the contents of his clipboard every few keystrokes, as shown by iOS 14.
In its defense, TikTok now claims that this disturbing reading-and-copying feature is “triggered by a feature designed to identify repetitive, spammy behavior.” But just how much can we trust TikTok at this point? It’s difficult to parse out the truth from a vague statement about technically complex app features that sounds suspiciously like an excuse to buy time.
February was rough for TikTok, too: the TSA and US Navy banned the app, citing major security concerns. Then, just a few days later, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman called TikTok “spyware” and “fundamentally parasitic.”
And then, just a few days ago, TikTok suffered another major blow:
Amid escalating tensions between India and China, the Indian government banned TikTok on Monday night. For users in India, TikTok is no longer available through the App Store or Google Play. This does not bode well for TikTok.
So what can you do to keep your privacy safe while still enjoying the app?
Forbes has a great list of security precautions you can take, and their suggestions are solid advice to keep in mind while using any app – not just TikTok.
Use common sense, and don’t be scared to read through the terms and conditions policy. Keep your profile private, review your security settings regularly, and make sure you’re in control of who can view and comment on your content.
Keep in mind that TikTok might no longer be scanning and digesting your iPhone’s clipboard, but the company has left its corrective actions deliberately unclear. Android users should take extreme caution with TikTok, as it’s not easy to tell if the “anti-spam filter” has actually been removed from its Android version.
In today’s age, digital literacy and security best-practices are absolutely critical for success, no matter your business.
And with the right dance moves, who knows? You could be the next global phenomenon.