Fact check: TikTok a security threat used by hackers and child-traffickers?
A 52-year-old middle school teacher is sharing his killer dance moves on TikTok. USA TODAY
The social media platform TikTok came to the United States in August 2018 and quickly grew in popularity, amassing an estimated 65 million active U.S. users. The app is most popular with teenagers, but has reached and appealed to audiences of all ages.
As its popularity spreads, the app has received criticisms for its privacy and security. As users became more concerned about the app's privacy, warnings began circulating on social media that urged parents to monitor or delete TikTok from their children's devices.
A viral April 6 post claimed a manager at Verizon said to “get rid of Tic Toc. They are a Chinese Site that has No Security, Hackers and Child Traffickers use it Extensively.”
TikTok's user privacy
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, based in Beijing, which is described by Business Insider as “China's ” because it owns several social media platforms.
TikTok's sign-up process is similar to that of other social media networks. Users are asked to register with a phone number or email address and date of birth; the app does not allow users under the age of 13 to register. The app does not request the city, state or country of residence of the user and the user's phone number or email address do not appear on their profile.
Accounts are set as “public” by default, but users can make an account private, which would allow only approved users to view and interact with that account's content. Users can follow and interact with each other but can only send direct messages if they are mutual friends. Videos and photographs cannot be sent via direct messages.
Consistent with that of other apps, TikTok users are in control of their privacy settings and how much of their personal information is available to the public.
Hackers on TikTok
The post claimed hackers and child traffickers use the app “extensively,” but did not elaborate.
The reality of hacking is that any social media account could be compromised, meaning users run the risk of hacking on almost any application.
In TikTok's relatively short existence, the app has come under fire for various security weaknesses. Lawmakers and regulators who are wary of Chinese technologies have targeted the app's vulnerabilities and branches of the U.S. military have prohibited the use of the app on government-issued devices.
Most recently, the app drew criticism for a weak HTTP connection, which delivers content in a faster and simpler way but can result in manipulation or interception. In April, TikTok told Forbes a fix was underway.
Research published by Check Point, a cybersecurity company in Israel, found that the app's security vulnerabilities allowed hackers to manipulate content, delete videos and reveal personal information.
TikTok addressed and solved each reported weakness, and Check Point verified that “a solution was responsibly deployed to ensure its users can safely continue using the TikTok app.”
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, an advocacy group that works to oppose sexual exploitation, releases a “dirty dozen” list each year.
TikTok is on the 2020 dirty dozen list for various reasons that include the app's default public account setting and lack of in-app reporting systems for sexually explicit content.
However, the TikTok app does have various in-app reporting options, including pornography and nudity. The app's community guidelines has a section stating that sexually explicit orgratifying content is not permitted. Videos that violate the guidelines are removed.
While TikTok does have reporting options and guidelines, sexually suggestive content is still uploaded and shared on the app. Also, consistent with other social media platforms, inappropriate and unwanted exchanges take place on the app.
In order to restrict who can view and interact with content or send them messages, users must adjust the privacy settings.
There is no evidence to suggest that child traffickers are using the TikTok app “extensively.”
Our rating: Partly false
The claims in the post have been rated PARTLY FALSE. While it is true that TikTok, owned by a Chinese-based company, previously has faced scrutiny for its security, it is false to say it has no security. TikTok states it has addressed and solved identified security issues, taking action that has been verified by the cybersecurity company that identified the weaknesses.
Additionally, no evidence suggests that TikTok is any more prone to hacking or trafficking than other social media platforms, or that the app is used “extensively” by hackers or traffickers.
Our fact-check sources:
- Statista, TikTok number of users in the United States 2019-2024
- The New York Times, TikTok Said to Be Under National Security Review
- Snopes, Does TikTok Allow Strangers to Access the Personal Information of Users Who Don’t Share Those Details?
- Reuters, TikTok steps up transparency efforts after privacy concerns in United States
- The New York Times, Major TikTok Security Flaws Found
- Military.com, Army Follows Pentagon Guidance, Bans Chinese-Owned TikTok App
- Forbes, TikTok Users Beware: This Is How Hackers Can Send Dangerous Videos To Your iPhone Or Android
- Check Point Research, Tik or Tok? Is TikTok secure enough?
- National Center on Sexual Exploitation
- Polaris, human trafficking and social media
- TikTok, Community Guidelines
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TikTok (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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