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What is TikTok (and Why Your Security Team Should Care)

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Teens love it. Trump hates it. Investors adore it. India blocked it. 

And now it ranks as one of the most downloaded apps in the world, according to Sensor Tower.

Meet TikTok, the app that has shaken up the world of social media. 

Thanks to a young and growing userbase, firms have started to see the app’s marketing potential. But that growth has also drawn the attention of security experts.

But exactly what is TikTok? And why should you care?

Let’s dive in.

What is TikTok?

TikTok is a short-form video app. It allows users to edit and upload quick clips, which they can share with the world. 

The most popular content includes dancing, singing, and lip-synching to hit songs. But you can find everything from comedy skits and skincare routines to DIY home repair tips.

The content posted on TikTok stands in contrast to what you often find on rival apps.

Facebook struggles to contain the spread of fake news. Twitter has emerged as a battleground in the national culture wars. YouTubers fight the algorithm with ever more radical or otherwise reprimandable content. 

TikTok, meanwhile, presents a laid-back, goofy vibe. 

It’s a completely different version of an online community seen on other social networks. And for many, it serves as a much-needed break from the deluge published elsewhere.

That approach has paid off for TikTok. 

Since launching in 2016, TikTok now boasts 689.0 million monthly active users. That ranks it as the seventh-largest social media platform in the world — ahead of notable rivals like Twitter, Reddit, and Snapchat. 

That approach has paid off for its backers, too. 

In the private market, investors value TikTok’s parent company ByteDance at $200.0 billion. That market cap makes ByteDance more valuable than top brands like Starbucks and McDonald’s.  

Why is TikTok Controversial?

That said, TikTok remains controversial. 

Critics claim ByteDance has a cozy relationship with the Chinese government. Foreign adversaries could use the app, in theory, to spy on U.S. citizens. 

That explains why some businesses and government agencies have banned staff from using TikTok on their devices. 

The accuracy of those claims, however, remains unclear. 

Comparitech completed a detailed review of TikTok’s privacy and security practices. Yet the publication found no evidence the app spied on users. 

Admittedly, TikTok does record a large amount of user data. But so do our smartphones and other mobile applications. 

In fact, security researcher Will Strafach called TikTok’s data collection policies “pretty tame compared to other apps.”

“Most data collection by apps concerns me, I don’t like any of it.”

But “for the iOS app available to Western audiences, it appears to collect very standard analytics information.”

TikTok has also addressed critics. 

“We are fully committed to protecting our users’ privacy and security,” a TikTok spokesperson commented in a recent CNN article. 

“Under the leadership of our American CEO, along with our Chief Information Security Officer and Head of Safety, TikTok’s growing U.S. team works diligently to develop a best-in-class security infrastructure and uphold our Community Guidelines which prohibit misleading and inauthentic content and accounts.”

TikTok as a Source of Threat Intelligence

Like other networks, TikTok can serve as a valuable source of intelligence. You can use the site to spot and investigate:

  • Extreme weather events
  • Hate speech 
  • Workplace bullying and harassment
  • Travel disruptions 
  • Trespassing incidents
  • Rumors or false information
  • Violent threats against staff, customers, or executives
  • Suspicious activity at an event or worksite
  • Active shooter situations
  • Accidental leaks of physical security measures

TikTok organizes posts by hashtags, like those found on Twitter or Facebook. 

That can make it easy to search for mentions of your company’s name. It’s also possible to look for chatter surrounding specific executives, locations, or products. 

Of course, TikTok doesn’t represent the end all and be all of any social media monitoring program.

Teams must watch many sources to ensure they don’t overlook a serious threat. For that reason, it’s important to have eyes on as many relevant social networks as possible. 

That said, more analysts will likely start paying attention going forward.

Users installed the app more than 56.0 million times in February. That ranks it as the most downloaded non-gaming programs worldwide. 

And with so much new content uploaded each day, it will become a key source of threat intelligence.

The Bottom Line on TikTok for Social Media Monitoring

In sum, TikTok is a fun (and somewhat addictive) app. 

Admittedly, the network will remain controversial. But regardless of your view on the service, it now ranks as one of the most popular social networks in the world. 

That will make it a key source of intelligence for security professionals. And if you don’t wrap it into your social media monitoring program, you could overlook serious risks to your organization.