The US Department of Defense issued multiple warnings for all US Military personnel this month; banning the viral Chinese social media app TikTok! Due to various threats of data leakage, Chinese Communist Party censorship and the potential for exploits, the DoD has demanded that all government-issued smartphones have the application removed immediately, and monitor their personal phones and their family members' devices for unusual and unsolicited texts, calls, direct messages and emails. Air Force Lt. Col. Uriah Orland stated, “Any such messages should be deleted immediately.”
So why the sudden uproar?
If you have tweens, teens or young adults in your household, you probably have the alleged Chinese surveillance app sitting within your walls and connecting to your Wi-Fi! TikTok is the 3rd most downloaded app of 2019, and it is chugging away at dethroning the social media titans of yesteryear even while the US “Committee on Foreign Investment” investigates censorship of TikTok’ed content critical of China’s Communist Party. But even as President Trump bans tech from Huawei and other Chinese firms from entering the US, jubilation abounds as American kids share videos – primarily lip-syncing pop music hits or creating short sketch comedy – over the Chinese powerhouse of social media!
But this is not a scathing political piece of propaganda in the campaign to ensure that Americans suddenly resume “buying American.” Nor is it an analysis of the DoD’s reactions to the threat. Rather, this is a warning about a new and clever chain of exploits centered around Tiktok which targets a host of private user data! The initial exploit is devious because of its near perfect use of social engineering to trick a user into authenticating their app from a spoofed SMS. From there, the list of compromised data is long and insidious:
With use of open redirection, and cross-site scripting (XSS), a malicious actor can:
- Delete any video from a victim’s TikTok profile.
- Upload unauthorized videos to the victim’s TikTok profile.
- Make the victim’s private, “hidden” videos public.
- Reveal personal information, such as private addresses and emails.
The attack uses an insecure SMS system that TikTok offers through its website which asks users to send a message with the official link to download the popular app. An attacker can then send an SMS message to the victim’s phone number with the appearance of being sent on behalf of TikTok. The download URL will have been modified to direct to a malicious page that executes code on the targeted device with the already installed TikTok app.
GoVanguard CTO, Shane Scott, commented, “The beauty of the attack is that the authentication wasn’t unsolicited. The user requested the text message, and they followed directions correctly to authenticate the app. Why would they ever assume they had been attacked? This would even trick a lot of seen savvy people until they had a reason to assume there was something wrong.”
In November 2019, this massive chain of vulnerabilities was responsibly disclosed to ByteDance, the company who maintains and distributes TikTok, who then released a patched version of its mobile app to protect its users from this string of attacks. If you are not running the latest version of TikTok available on official app stores for Android and iOS, we advise that you update your app as soon as possible.
Or, if you are a 33-year-old professional, like myself, you can follow my lead and delete TikTok altogether.
I didn’t “get it” anyways!