Short version: Any social media platform can be compared to the biggest, greasiest cheeseburger that you can find. You know that the cheeseburger is unhealthy, but you choose to eat it anyway.
TikTok is worse for you than a cheeseburger
Many of us mis/use the Internet by installing apps that we know collect our data. We tweet, share, post, repost, reshare, retweet, and say little (if anything!) about the dangers of the platforms that we use. It is a “risk worth taking to connect with friends and family online.”
We partake in this ocean of data collection platforms because, like the cheeseburger, we are willing to willingly trade our personal data and intimate details of our Internet behavior to strangers for something that we want even though we know it is not good for us. And like eating a cheeseburger yesterday, a new day begins today, and we are seemingly unharmed from yesterday’s use of these platforms, which encourages us to eat another cheeseburger (I mean, log into TikTok again). We justify this unbalanced trade so that we can “connect” with friends and family online.
TikTok is like a triple stack, bacon cheeseburger.
Every person working in any aspect of “information security”, from the IT admin to the deep-diving forensicator, knows all about how social media platforms are purposely developed for the collection of data of its users. We know without doubt that the sole purpose of these platforms (ie, the code) is to collect personal data from users to specifically sell it. Yet, here we are using them, to connect to friends and family. To be honest, we also know that one day, all of the unhealthy cheeseburgers will hit us hard one day. But we ignore that warning.
We are all breached
In defense of using “malicious” social media platforms, I hear the argument often that since the breaches have already happened, we have nothing left to lose. It is true that our personal data has been breached, leaked, stolen, and sold multiple times. Our DOBs, SSNs, and mother’s maiden names have all been collected by hackers many times over and we used to treat our DOBs and SSNs as practically TOP SECRET information! But now, for less than five bucks, you can get anyone’s DOB and SSN in minutes. For a little physical effort on a keyboard, you can probably find it for free.
The point that I stress is that our behavior is being collected. Our behavior speaks volumes more than our biological identity, especially when behavior is tied to an identified person.
Sure, when Facebook monitors your website visits, this is collecting your behavior, but even that is not what I am talking about. Facebook wants your browsing history and purchasing history so that it can make money from your Internet behavior. If Facebook informed every user in big, colorful letters that it is providing Facebook free in exchange for users’ Internet history and personally identifiable information, they would lose exactly no users. No one cares because the effect is almost unnoticeable. By the way, I am not defending Facebook in the least bit.
An entirely different level of ‘breached’
I consider every social media platform as malware even as I also use social media. How bad is that!?! The most devasting impacts of social media platforms is not the selling and reselling of our phone number in order for a company to sell us something. It is not about being sent targeted ads. It is about the type of our information that is not being sold which is the worst kind of breached: our offline behavior.
Online dis/mis/information directly modifies our offline behavior, both intentionally and unintentionally by Internet platforms and other users. A person or persons in one country can cause a person in a different country to behave against their best interests or against the interests of their own country through misinformation, disinformation, and even with bullying online behavior. This can happen to corporations and even to governments, or more accurately, by corporations and governments.
We know it, but we ignore it, because we like cheeseburgers
TikTok is clearly malicious. Your PII and offline behavior are both being captured. TikTok is malicious in the clear definition of being malicious. Data is collected surreptitiously for bad purposes, in the sense of marketing of “TikTok is totally free; we are not taking any personal information <wink wink>.”
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">A guy on reddit reversed engineered <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TikTok?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TikTok</a><br><br>Here’s what he found on the data it collects on you<br><br>It’s far worse than just stealing what’s on your clipboard: <a href="https://t.co/oqaQyYDXT2">pic.twitter.com/oqaQyYDXT2</a></p>— Dan Okopnyi 🇺🇦 (@d1rtydan) <a href="https://twitter.com/d1rtydan/status/1277081198624337920?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">June 28, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
This is an unstoppable train
The train has left the station: Offline behavior of geolocation data, smartphone contacts, IP addresses, personal photos, bank account information, connected apps, the places you regularly visit, the routes that you regularly use, and the dates and times of your travels and destinations. All of this is in the hands of the developers of the apps on your device.
With the right machine learning, the right artificial intelligence, and the right intuitive design of an effective operation, you could start riots, create race wars, bankrupt corporations, shutdown economies, sway elections, and even start kinetic wars between countries based on this information.
No, I am not overreacting
In 2013, in a book that I wrote, I stated that “…mobile devices are practically an attached GPS device on the user.” I should have added “…without needing probable cause for a warrant.” And could have added, “…and can be used as an effective behavior modification device.”
All of this is already happening. It’s not a new method of warfare. Psychological operations have employed for many wars for as long as humans have warred. The only difference is that with the Internet, PsyOps is more effective, easier, and quicker to see results. Where a few decades ago, a PsyOps campaign may not see results for months or years, we can see results in mere days and hours. Push the right buttons on the right person and a riot is sparked. Our devices not only give our location but also collecting the identity of those near us who also have connected devices. Think about it: a gathering of any social group can be completely identified in minutes by date, time, location, and the personal contacts between people based on the physical distances of each person's mobile device. What could you do with that information if you wanted to modify the behavior of a group?
I am past preventing the misuse of PII or collection of offline behavior. I think all of us should move past that, including our government. For as long as people use the Internet, this information will be collected maliciously or with consent. The more effective measure is what to do about the effects of what we cannot control. How do we correct our misdirected behavior created by trolls and enemies? How do we separate what is fake from what is real? What is our countermeasure?
We can ban malicious apps today, but without question, others will come tomorrow. Apps that we assume to be non-malicious today can easily turn malicious with the change of a few lines of code at any time of use. If not the app itself, malicious insiders will always, and have always, stolen and sold information to adversaries. We can't blot out the sun but we can put on sunscreen.
A forensics-thinking approach
One thing about the digital forensics mindset is that everything in the electronic data world is questioned during an analysis. No competent forensic analyst will blindly accept the date of a file as being the actual date of the file without some corroborating data. One point of circumstantial evidence is just an opinion. We need more than a single point of data to separate a fact from opinion.
The same holds true for every social media platform. We cannot blindly accept that our use of any platform is free from being used to harm others or ourselves by malicious actors or even the platform provider (sometimes they are the same!). Bots, puppet accounts, and hijacked accounts are most always trusted at first glance, and many times, continue to be trusted until it is too late.
Question everything that makes you question questions
One of the traits that makes a good investigator is listening that little voice in your head that asks, “Why…”. You have an ability that raises red flags and gives doubt, but you have to act upon that ability. Humans are too quick to accept what they see or hear, and thereby not question it. Have you ever walked into a new restaurant, got a bad feeling, ate there anyway, and ended up regretting it? That's what I mean. Find the answers to the questions of the little voices* that you hear.
In a digital forensic case, acting on uncorroborated evidence can result in case dismissals, or worse, wrongful convictions. In the offline world, acting on uncorroborated information can result in personal and physical attacks on innocent people or worst, the complete breakdown of a society.
There are no coincidences
I did some time in military intelligence units and one of the things that I learned was that there is no such thing as a coincidence. Anything that happens, happens for a reason and someone was behind it happening. I carried that experience and training into undercover investigations in law enforcement by creating "coincidences' in my cases. It was a simple op to gather intel on criminals and 'coincidently' to bump into them to develop relationships without having to be introduced. These planned coincidences resulted in going from zero in a case to practically being #2 or #3 in an organization.
The Internet is no different. There are no coincidences on the Internet. Everything has a purpose and plan. Whether individuals create dissent, or they are useful idiots in a bigger operation by organizations or nations, consider that there is something behind everything if it is on the Internet. More so with the "free" social media platforms. You are not the product in these scenarios. You are the pawn.
The hard way of surveillance
At a federal task force, my group needed to come up with a plan to install listening devices in a house. The house was irregularly occupied and of course, always locked. The team that actually installed the devices had a plan. We created a 'power-line down' ruse in the neighborhood to stop all incoming traffic, the install team broke into the house through the garage, cut a hole in the wall to access a room, installed the devices and software, repaired the hole that they cut out, and left undetected. That was a major operation and the occupants didn't have a clue until they read the affidavit...
In another case, I needed to install a hardwired-GPS on a vehicle that was extremely difficult to catch at a place for the installation. The only way feasible was to get a search warrant to steal the car, order a key from the manufacturer, install the GPS after 'stealing' it, and then "report" the stolen car to local PD as a stolen recovery. Again, lots of work just to install a GPS.
Today, if I were a spy and wanted to do these things, I would walk down the hall to the computer team and request development of a free, social media app. Then I would market it like crazy to the country/countries of choice. And monitor it and wait until my targets, or the children of my targets, or the friends of my targets installed the app. Then I would be in their home, quite literally in the sense of being able to hear and see anything. And potentially influence them. Or I could influence the populace slightly by pushing a few key users into a pre-planned direction of disruption. Not that this could be happening now.........I wonder if I could get law enforcement officers, political figures, movie stars, and their children to use my app?
A step in the right direction
Be prepared to address what is coming. Be prepared with solutions to the problems when people start complaining. When your government wants to implement an overreaction to a perceived problem, be prepared to have a better-measured response.
Consider the current encryption debate. The government can’t break encryption, so their solution is banning encryption altogether (a backdoor is an encryption ban, fight me if you want). Any person in information security knows that this is not only an over-reaction, but it will be the biggest detriment to security in the history of security. There are better solutions. One would be for investigators to do better jobs in their investigations rather than outright ban encryption.
We are all smart enough to know what is happening with the breaches, the leaks, and the malicious social media platforms. If the data is not being sold for profit, it is being caressed into a format useful for warfare (cyber or otherwise).
As a side note, every country is doing this to their own countries in the search of potential dissidents and criminals. Remember that what you do today may be illegal or unacceptable tomorrow. Some governments may allow for the past to go unpunished, which other governments may (will) retroactively punish past behavior that was legal at the time but subsequently made illegal.
You Should Already be in Condition Yellow
Anyone working in the infosec field should be in Situational Awareness Condition Yellow. Being aware of threats now decreases the time between identification and action which thereby increases your odds of success to handle threats.
Of course, we are aware of the threats that the Internet holds for society. From cyberbullies pushing victims toward suicide through nation-states creating internal turmoil in their enemy’s countries using online PsyOps. But being aware is only one step. We should be thinking of countermeasures and remedies.
Be ready for when those in Condition White begin to overreact, you can bring them down to Yellow when they go straight to Red without a plan. No one wants to hear from complainers without solutions, and by being ready with something, you will be further ahead and maybe we can get this right the first time.
Until then, cut back on the cheeseburgers because the day to pay up for those burgers will be here soon enough.
*by little voices in your head, I mean "gut feeling", "intuition", "bad feeling", "paranoia", or anything else describing the feeling that something not quite right.