TikTok has said that it will remove a feature which reads data from the clipboard on user devices as they use TikTok, after a recent iOS update exposed the practice.
Jeremy Burge of Emojipedia posted this example of the process on Twitter:
Okay so TikTok is grabbing the contents of my clipboard every 1-3 keystrokes. iOS 14 is snitching on it with the new paste notification pic.twitter.com/OSXP43t5SZ— Jeremy Burge (@jeremyburge) June 24, 2020
As you can see, the new iOS notification repeatedly informs Burge that 'TikTok pasted from Instagram' as he types in the app.
The process works like this - when you have something that you've cut from someplace else (like a section of text or a URL), it sits on your clipboard, from which you can paste it into another app. The latest version of iOS (14) now informs you when this happens. The process has been happening for years in the background, in various apps, users just haven't been made aware of such till now.
And it's likely not all that nefarious. As noted, a range of apps utilize the same functionality, so that they can check to see if what you have ready to paste may be of relevance to what you're doing in that app - i.e. you've cut that info to paste somewhere, and you're using this app, in all likelihood, you're going to paste it here.
In practice, it's probably not a big deal, but perceptually, it doesn't look great. And with TikTok already under scrutiny over how it moderates certain content, and even, according to some reports, records audio in the background, it makes sense that TikTok has quickly moved to remove the functionality from its app.
In the case of the latter, the rumor is similar to reports that Facebook is listening into your every day conversations, which Facebook has repeatedly denied. Such access is prohibited by OS developers, which makes this increasingly unlikely (as they risk having their apps disabled outright), but it's another form of potentially intrusive access attached to TikTok that, true or not, adds to the suggestion that it's essentially a spy app,
Indeed, back in February, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman said that TikTok was 'fundamentally parasitic':
"It’s always listening, [and] the fingerprinting technology they use is truly terrifying, and I could not bring myself to install an app like that on my phone.”
That 'fingerprinting' relates to audio and browser tracking, which matches what users are doing on TikTok with what they're then sharing on the web. This, to some, is seen as overstepping the bounds of acceptable, and necessary, data collection - while TikTok also sucks in user GPS data, and info on other apps they might have open, detail which doesn't appear to have any immediate bearing on your in-app experience.
That's why military officials in various nations have banned the usage of TikTok by personnel, while the US government has also launched a national security investigation into the Chinese-owned app. The connection to the Chinese Government, through China's strict cybersecurity laws, means that, essentially, TikTok would be required to share user data with the Chinese regime on request.
TikTok has been working to distance itself from its Chinese roots, limiting the user data that can be accessed in different regions and appointing a new American CEO to lead to separation away from its parent company. But thus far, it remains a Chinese-owned app, and is therefore subject to the same regulations, if enforced.
Which is why there's such concern about its data collection processes, and why, of all apps that may be checking out your clipboard info, it matters that TikTok is doing it.
So now TikTok will stop - but it's another concern which adds to broader perception. That doesn't appear to have slowed the app's momentum as yet, but it may strengthen the skepticism of those already concerned about the platform.