TikTok: What Does the Software Do?

March 22, 2023

A day or two ago, information reached me in rural Kentucky about Google’s Project Zero cyber team. I think the main idea is that Google’s own mobiles, Samsung’s, and those of a handful of other vendors were vulnerable. Interesting. The people who make the phones do not know exactly what flaws or data drains their own devices have. What sticks in my mind is that these are not new mobiles like the Nothing Phone.

Why do I mention this? Software can exploit these flaws. Who knew? Obviously not Google when the phones were designed, coded, manufactured, or shipped. Some Googlers use these devices which is even more remarkable. How can a third party know exactly what functions or latent functions exist within hardware or software for that matter?

I assume that the many cyber experts will tell me, “We know.”

Okay, you know. I am not sure I believe you. Sorry.

Now I come to the TikTok is good, TikTok is evil write up “It’s Wild That Western Governments Have Decided That TikTok Might Spy for Chine. The App Hasn’t Helped Itself.” The article reports:

In December, TikTok admitted that some ByteDance staff in the US and China gained access to personal data of journalists in a bid to monitor their location and expose company leaks. A spokesperson said four employees who accessed the data had been fired, CNN reported at  the time. TikTok has maintained the app doesn’t spy on individuals, and has pointed to the steps it’s taking to hive off user information.  Theo Bertram, TikTok’s vice president for public policy in Europe, tweeted on Thursday that the app does not “collect any more data than other apps.”

What’s my point? The Google Project Zero team did not know what was possible with its own code on its own devices. Who knows exactly what the TikTok app does and does not do? Who knows what latent capabilities reside within the app?

The Wall Street Journal published ” on March 19, 2023, page A-4, “DOJ Looking into TikTok’s Tracking of Journalists.” The story contained a statement attributed to a TikTok executive. The snippet I clipped whilst waiting for a third-world airline is:

TikTok’s chief executive Shou Zi Chew has said that divesting the company from its Chinese owners doesn’t offer any more protection that a multibillion-dollar plan the company has already proposed.

Now I am supposed to trust software from an allegedly China-affiliated app? What?

In the absence of sufficient information, what is a prudent path. One can compartmentalize as I do. One can stop using the software as I have for certain applications? One can filter the malicious app so that it is not available? One can install cyber defenses that monitor what’s going in and out and capture data about those flows?

The bottom-line today March 18, 2023, is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Therefore, hasta la vista TikTok.

Stephen E Arnold, March 22, 2023


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