Tick tock. It’s the sound of the clock counting down the minutes, a sound that seems to get louder by the day as millions practice social distancing by staying at home. It’s also the name for an online community and video-sharing app – TikTok – that is becoming increasingly popular as millions find ways to entertain themselves in isolation.

In 15-to-60-second clips, users share anything – and we mean anything – of interest on TikTok. Viral dance trends, popular challenges, teen celebrities and random acts of hilarity have originated on this platform that purposely and successfully targets Generation Z. In the U.S. alone, 60 percent of the app’s monthly active users are 16 to 24 years old, and TikTok policy allows users under the age of 18 to participate with parental consent. With the world practicing social distancing, TikTok has solidified its place in social media by connecting people in ways no other social media platform can.

TikTok is making waves during the COVID-19 pandemic, but politicians and security experts are concerned about its effect on data protection, national safety and general privacy. According to our Threat + Violence Risk Management team, you can keep on dancing the “renegade” – but be wary of the app’s significant risks.

TikTok’s Reign During the COVID-19 Pandemic

On April 9, 2020, TikTok announced it is donating $375 million to combating the COVID-19 pandemic, most of which will go to the likes of the World Health Organization (WHO). The altruistic gesture is just one way the app has become a central figure amid the coronavirus outbreak.

With the anxiety and boredom of self-isolation, celebrities and lonely teens alike are embracing dark humor on TikTok. Not all of it is good fun – some have taken to joking about COVID-19 diagnosis – but most users are leveraging the app to create a space for commiseration and connection. While comedy is certainly a reason millions flock to the app – it had its biggest boost of installs in the last quarter of 2019 – TikTok is also a platform for information sharing.

TikTok’s giant bump in installs

The WHO recently warned of an infodemic: an abundance of information spread quickly, most of which may be unverified or entirely inaccurate. TikTok has become a weapon against this infodemic; Vietnam’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health turned one viral TikTok about washing your hands into a widespread PSA, and everyone from doctors to law enforcement personnel have posted on the app to share public safety information. It’s a viral and fun way to get facts out to the masses, particularly the tech-savvy Gen Z.

Foreign Ownership Has Government Leaders Saying No to the App Craze

Concerns surrounding TikTok begin with its foreign ownership. It is one of the few foreign apps competing with Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The Chinese company ByteDance owns the app, which operates under Chinese privacy laws that require all entities to provide the government access to the raw data stored on Chinese networks. TikTok has publicly stated that data from the app derived from U.S.-based users is not stored in China, and therefore, would not be subject to the Chinese government’s rules. As recently as this week, there is speculation that ByteDance could reach an agreement to sell off its U.S., New Zealand and Australian operations.

Despite these statements, the risk for possible TikTok blackmail, breaches and vulnerabilities still exists. This has raised major red flags for American politicians concerned with threats related to outside governments mishandling conversations, data, images and information – not to mention data and information connected to American minors. As a result, the U.S. government banned the use of TikTok by American military forces, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel and federal employees on government premises.

Censorship Raises Red Flags – and Toilet Seats

The app has also come under fire for how its leaders handle the content on its feeds. TikTok censored young users who brought attention to the treatment of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, China and spoke out during the widespread protests in Hong Kong throughout 2019. A user’s account was even deleted after her video about China’s “re-education” camps gained over 1.4 million views and later was posted on Twitter and garnered five million additional views. TikTok denied her account was deleted because of the “re-education” camp mention, rather citing that she violated other app safety policies. In more recent news, investigative journalists published 2019 moderator memos exposing censorship practices that limit videos that showcase people who are “ugly” or “poor,” and permanently ban anyone found “to be endangering national security.”

The moderators’ censorship decisions above are made more stark compared to the content they don’t take down, such as dangerous challenges popularized on the app. The “Skull Breaker” involves tripping an individual and has landed children in hospitals with concussions. “The Penny” involves putting a penny between a charger and an outlet to create a spark. The “Coronavirus” Challenge requires a user to lick a public item, such as a toilet seat cover.

Without Supervision, Young Users Could Compromise Data and Security

In 2019, TikTok paid a $5.7-million settlement to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over “illegally collecting” sensitive data from children. This violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) included collecting voice recordings, geolocations and unshared personal videos from children under 13 without parental consent.

Although TikTok’s security issues are not much different than those of more mature social media apps, such as Facebook and Twitter, others must champion its younger target audience’s online safety and data protection. It’s not likely that a 13-year-old is considering their long-term digital footprint, much less their individual digital safety from a possible international cyber-attack. With a younger audience comes higher responsibility for data, privacy and safety protections. TikTok has a long way to go.

In the meantime, parents with young TikTok-using children can:

  • Start open dialogues with their children about online responsibility and safety.
  • Learn as much as they can about TikTok for themselves.
  • Remember that TikTok accounts are not automatically set to private when created.
  • Know that TikTok is releasing a child-friendly version of the app that will provide better privacy settings to protect children, although it is not clear when it will be released.
  • Use the restricted mode and screen-time limits to filter out more mature content.
  • Avoid unknown links sent through messages to avoid phishing attacks.
  • Always download the most updated version of the app.
  • Do not reveal personal information on the app and instruct children to not talk to strangers while using it.
  • Remember that once you upload a video, it’s there forever. Even when deleted, TikTok is allowed to use your image in advertisements with no notification or compensation.

Whether you’re just now downloading the app during the COVID-19 outbreak or are a seasoned TikTok influencer, it’s important to understand how the app threatens our security and that of children. Between the funny videos and (safe) challenges, always remember good cybersecurity practices.