Cybersecurity experts have started targetting TikTok over the lack of privacy settings on its platform, the major controversy led after a post-investigation found hundreds of Hong Kongs kids aging below 9 years revealing their identity on the network.
Though the app’s parent company being is a tech giant valued at more than $20 billion, still the app’s protection measures seem to pale as compared to its other competitors, namely Facebook and Instagram.
TikTok’s sister app Musical.ly has already been a part of daily conversation in the United States and Australia due to its failure to protect children from being harassed on the platform.
The app creators received a warning after an investigation found out that Hong-Kong primary school kids are risking themselves by exposing their identities on the app, which has taken the city by storm in the past year.
Hong Kong Information Technology Federation councilor Eric Fan Kin-man said, “I think it does a lousy job of protecting child users’ privacy and safety compared with other mainstream platforms.”
Both the apps Musical.ly and TikTok allow its users to create short lip-syncing videos and are owned by a single Chinese firm Bytedance. The company was initially founded in 2012, and since then it has been the country’s fastest growing start-ups mainly because of its excellent use of algorithms and artificial intelligence to ranks posts and videos for users.
The company’s flagship product is AI-powered news aggregator Toutiao, also known as Today’s headlines which itself has an amount of 120 million daily users as reported in July last year.
According to TikTok’s privacy guidelines, users below the age of 16 are not allowed on the platform, and any of such profiles found on the network will be shut down if necessary.
However, according to the post identities of more than hundreds of children were exposed publicly on the platform. Selfie videos with adult suggestive themes or actions implying self-harm were found on the platform along with pedophiles stalking teenage girls.
The app provides its users with two privacy settings option, one in which you can make the video private and the other one where you can set up your content public. In the privacy settings, one can choose who can send them messages, can comment or see their content. In addition to this, users can’t even delete or deactivate their account themselves, they can only do it through an email request.
Lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said that he planned on writing to the security bureau regarding the establishment of a child commission headed by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor, to urge them to look into TikTok.
He said, “It’s dangerous for children to post on TikTok and expose their personal information if they can’t control privacy settings of the app.”
Three cybersecurity experts mentioned that allowing users to remove their accounts themselves should not be a big task for the company. They also advised the app creators to try and screen for children.
Young Wo-sang, convenor of the Internet Security and Privacy Working Group at the Internet Society Hong Kong, said that the app could perform much better by verifying the age of the users when they register for an account, They can also apply facial recognition technologies to determine the age of a particular user.
Young said, “It may not be 100 percent accurate, but it can be helpful, for a technology company like Bytedance, it should not be a problem.”
TikTok uses its recognition feature to add special effects and detect facial expressions of the users to make them look good or funny. The augmented reality selfie app “Faceu” was acquired by Bytedance in February this year for an amount of US$300 million.
Still, the concerns have grown over the matter of the risks that younger users are imposing upon them by exposing their identities each time they upload a video on the app.
In the country of Japan, people have been found uploading embarrassing and adult content saved from TikTok’s platform to other social media platforms, mainly for making fun of the creators or maybe out of the greed of getting more views on their videos.
Former Australian police officer Susan McLean, a cybersecurity expert, has been warning the public about the safety concerns of the app. Musical.ly, which is popular among the younger generation in Australia, Europe, and the US.
As per the media reports, predators and the pedophiles were found sending direct messages to teenagers asking for inappropriate photos, including an eight-year-old girl in Melbourne and seven-year-old in the United States.
Mclean said: “It would not be hard for TikTok to offer options for users to share videos with their friends only, but they don’t want to make it easy for users to go away.”
“If TikTok and Musical.ly really do care about their users’ safety on the app, then they should be proactive, not reactive when it comes to safety measures.”
Billy Wong Wai-yuk, executive secretary of the Hong Kong Committee on Children’s Right, talked about her concern that TikTok will become a place ruled by predators to harm children. She called upon the government to learn about the safety measures that other countries have taken to minimize the problem.
For example, the Australian government created the post of e-safety commissioner in 2015 to coordinate and lead online safety measures.
“Currently, there is no such law or department in Hong Kong that deals with children’s privacy and protection online.”
Wong said: “It needs the government and experts from the internet industry to work together sought out a mechanism to protect children.”
The founder of Bytedance and CEO Zhang Yiming said that platforms made by tech companies have become a form of public infrastructure similar to water and electricity, which owns a huge effect on society.
“So these companies should know their responsibilities well and improve transparency and protection measures on the platform,” he added.