Predators flock to TikTok, SAPS warns

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 09 Jun 2020

The South African Police Service (SAPS) has issued a warning about the dangers of popular teen social media app TikTok as SA celebrates Youth Month.

June is dedicated to the youth of 1976 who stood up against the apartheid government and laid down their lives fighting for freedom and the right to equal education.

The 2020 Youth Month is being commemorated under the theme: “Youth power: Growing South Africa together in the period of COVID-19”.

Launched by Beijing-based company ByteDance in 2017, TikTok gives users as young as 13 the opportunity to share 60-second short videos with friends, family or the entire world.

In a Facebook post, SAPS says: “TikTok can be a safe place for kids 13 or older, but parents are encouraged to discuss online safety and best practices.”

The warning from SA’s law enforcement comes as TikTok is witnessing massive growth. Data gathered by indicates that during the first quarter of 2020, the popular video-sharing platform had 200 million downloads, an all-time high record in under three months.

According to the data, this figure represents growth of about 28% from the 156 million downloads recorded in the fourth quarter of 2019.

Since launch, the video-sharing social networking app has reached over 800 million active users worldwide. In SA, it has an estimated five million users.

However, the growth of TikTok has come with several vulnerabilities that expose young users to cyber criminals.

For example, Israeli-based cyber security firm Check Point recently uncovered multiple vulnerabilities in TikTok that could have allowed attackers to manipulate content on user accounts and even extract confidential personal information saved on these accounts.

The research found that an attacker could send a spoofed SMS message to a user containing a malicious link. When the user clicked on the malicious link, the attacker was able to get hold of the TikTok account and manipulate its content by deleting videos, uploading unauthorised videos, and making private or “hidden” videos public.

Last year, the app was blamed for alarming incidents of suicide and murder, as well as widespread under-age use, which saw the video-sharing app receive massive criticism online.

BBC research, conducted over three months, through the collection and analysis of hundreds of videos posted on TikTok, found hundreds of sexually explicit comments on videos posted by children as young as nine.

It further revealed the video-sharing app failed to suspend the accounts of people sending sexual messages to teenagers and children.

“It is up to the parents to talk to kids about appropriate content,” says SAPS in its warning. “Predators have been known to flock to places where there are many kids, and TikTok is no different. Many online predators use the platform to contact and solicit children. Parents are encouraged to warn their kids about the online dangers of predators, regardless of what they do online.”

SAPS has also issued a warning about the Whisper app, a proprietary Android and iOS mobile app available without charge.

It is a form of anonymous social media, allowing users to post and share photo and video messages anonymously, although this claim has been challenged, with privacy concerns over Whisper’s handling of user data.

“Social Web sites are part of everyday life, but children are especially susceptible to the threats that social networking apps and Web sites present,” SAPS says.

“By teaching children about online safety, being aware of their online habits and guiding them to appropriate apps and Web sites, parents can make sure their children become safe and responsible users.”