Guy Who Reverse-Engineered TikTok Reveals Scary Things About the App, Advises People To Stay Away From It

If you’ve spent much time on social media in the past few years, chances are, you’ve seen content produced on the app TikTok. TikTok is a video-sharing app, similar to the now defunct Vine app, but with some key differences. TikTok videos are longer-form than Vines, allowing up to 15 seconds for each video. [1]

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The app, which has at times been controversial, is owned by Bytedance, a Chinese company. In April of 2020, Sensor Tower reported that the app had been downloaded more than 2 billion times worldwide, making it one of the most downloaded apps in the world. The app became especially popular during the early months of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic where many were stuck in their homes, bored, with little else to do than make brief, humorous videos. [2] [3]

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But it hasn’t been all fun and games. As is the case with many apps, concerns about privacy and safety have been abundant. For example, the ‘Benadryl Challenge’ promoted by some users of the app resulted in the death of at least one teen. And in June of 2020, TikTok was among 224 Chinese apps that were completely banned in India, with the country’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology stating in a press release that the ban was “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of state and public order.” [4] [5]

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US President Donald Trump took similar action on the same grounds, signing an executive order on August 6th, 2020, that would outlaw any transactions between ByteDance and US citizens. Trump’s order would be rescinded if TikTok were to be sold to a US firm. Trump alleged that the app stored American user data in China, which posed a national security threat. ByteDance fired back saying that all American user data is stored in the United States, not China. [6]

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Regardless of the outcome of these bans, some have been concerned about their privacy on this and many other apps. One software engineer, a Reddit user named u/bangorlol, took to Reddit to discuss some of their disturbing findings on TikTok. [7]

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A software engineer weighs in

In a comment on Reddit, u/bangorlol, who claims to have 15 years of experience in software engineering, alleged that TikTok intrusively tracks user data moreso than other popular social media apps like Instagram and Twitter. They warn that the app is full of predators who groom young children and convince them to engage in raunchy acts.

The following are screenshots from his comment, which can also be viewed here.

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Bangerlol’s claims sparked a flurry of activity, resulting in hundreds of replies and 28,000 community “upvotes” as of November 24, 2020. The interest didn’t stop on Reddit. In an interview with Bored Panda, Bangerlol sounded off again, validating their experience as a software engineer and doubling down on their concerns about the app.

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“The last several years of my career has been based around reversing mobile applications, analyzing how they work, and building additional third-party functionality around them,” he told Bored Panda. “A rough example would be me noticing that Twitter doesn’t show you a sequential timeline (no idea if they do or not) on the website but does on the app. I’d go into the Android or iOS version, find the requests that get the correct data, and build a third-party tool (app, website, browser extension) to give users this functionality.” [8]

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Bangerlol does note that TikTok is fairly secure, with the host company having in place numerous protocols that would thwart would-be hackers from gaining access to user data.

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“TikTok put a lot of effort into preventing people like me from figuring out how their app works. There’s a ton of obfuscation involved at all levels of the application, from your standard Android variable renaming grossness to them (Bytedance) forking and customizing ollvm for their native stuff. They hide functions, prevent debuggers from attaching, and employ quite a few sneaky tricks to make things difficult. Honestly, it’s more complicated and annoying than most games I’ve targeted,” Bangorlol explained.

Bangerlol did note, in all fairness, that some time had elapsed between his initial research on TikTok and now, and that some of his concerns may have been addressed already. But he does express concern with user apathy about their data.

“The general consensus among most ‘normal’ people is that they can’t/won’t be targeted, so it’s fine. Or that they have nothing to hide, so ‘why should I even care?’ I think the apathy is sourced from people just not understanding the security implications (at all levels) of handing over our data to a foreign government that doesn’t discriminate against who they target, and also doesn’t really have the best track record when it comes to human rights,” he said.

Other Reddit users left comments expressing their own thoughts and concerns. Here’s what some of them had to say:

References

  1. What is TikTok?Influencer Marketing Hub. Retrieved November 24, 2020.
  2. 50 TikTok Stats That Will Blow Your Mind in 2020.Influencer Marketing Hub. Retrieved November 24, 2020.
  3. TikTok Crosses 2 Billion Downloads After Best Quarter For Any App Ever.Sensor Tower. Retrieved November 24, 2020.
  4. Dangerous ‘Benadryl Challenge’ on TikTok blamed for teen’s death.The Hearty Soul. Julie Hambleton. Retrieved November 24, 2020.
  5. India Bans Nearly 60 Chinese Apps, Including TikTok and WeChat.New York Times. Maria Abi-Habib. Retrieved November 24, 2020.
  6. Trump Signs Executive Order That Will Effectively Ban Use Of TikTok In the U.S.National Public Radio. Bobby Allyn. Retrieved November 24, 2020.
  7. Not new news, but tbh if you have tiktiok, just get rid of it.Reddit. u/tobrown05. Retrieved November 24, 2020.
  8. Guy Who Reverse-Engineered TikTok Reveals The Scary Things He Learned, Advises People To Stay Away From It.Bored Panda. Rokas Laurinavičius and Ilona Baliūnaitė. Retrieved November 24, 2020.

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Thomas Nelson
Environmental Advocate
Thomas is an environmental advocate currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. In his spare time, he enjoys experiencing the outdoors, raising chickens and ducks, and reading about current environmental issues. Despite slight colorblindness, his favorite color is green.