TikTok is no stranger to privacy issues and data-related controversies. Now, thanks to Apple and its reinforced privacy controls being introduced on iOS 14, a new issue of TikTok’s mobile app has come into light, where it appears to be reading users’ clipboards in the background to paste any text in the app that a user may have copied. This seemingly happens without any express or prior permission of the user, and almost feels like a privacy bomb that’s waiting to blow up. TikTok, though, appears to have come up with an explanation for this, stating on record that it is an anti-spammer precaution that it has taken. According to reports on the internet, a number of other apps also exhibit such behaviour, and once iOS 14 rolls out to more users worldwide, it will be interesting to see how many heavily downloaded apps are found to be taking such permissions in the background, all of which can potentially put user privacy at risk.
Hey @tiktok_us, why do you paste from my clipboard every time I type a LETTER in your comment box? Shout out to iOS 14 for shining a light on this HUGE invasion of privacy. inb4 they say it was a "bug" pic.twitter.com/MHv10PmzZS
— Maxel (@MaxelAmador) June 25, 2020
The expose has come in light of a new banner alert, which will pop up every time an app tries to paste information from a device clipboard to itself. Given that users often copy information such as personal messages and financial transaction details, this can lead to a potential risk of personal user data being collected by TikTok, so far without letting anyone know about it. However, a TikTok representative defended this stance in an interaction with The Telegraph UK, where he stated that TikTok has been doing so as part of a custom anti-spam tactic that lets it identify repeat posters or spammers. The noble intention appears to have dissolved rather quickly, though – TikTok has already stated that since this “anti-spam” feature is triggering the iOS 14 privacy banner, it will stop accessing user clipboards in the background.
This is hardly the first time that TikTok’s practices have come into question. After seeing a rapid expansion phase in India initially, TikTok found itself under the government’s scanner in light of lax community redundancies to check user practices. TikTok lived through this phase and brought about a number of changes, some of which, the company said then, was designed to help users report more flaws about the platform. More than a year later, TikTok now finds itself in the middle of an anti-China sentiment wave, along with lapses such as the suspension of the TikTok account of social media personality Saloni Gaur (aka Nazma Aapi), and now, a privacy issue as well.
However, reports have suggested that TikTok is hardly the only app that exhibits such behaviour. According to 9to5Mac, apps such as Google News, Call fo Duty Mobile and AccuWeather also read clipboard information in the background, and right now, it is not quite clear why. With iOS 14’s privacy filter bringing this issue to the fore, it remains to be seen why are such apps infringing user privacy, what data is being compromised in process, and what redressals might users be able to undertake to protect themselves.