In March, researchers uncovered a troubling privacy grab by more than four dozen iOS apps including TikTok, the Chinese-owned social media and video-sharing phenomenon that has taken the Internet by storm. Despite TikTok vowing to curb the practice, it continues to access some of Apple users most sensitive data, which can include passwords, cryptocurrency wallet addresses, account-reset links, and personal messages. Another 53 apps identified in March haven't stopped either.
The privacy invasion is the result of the apps repeatedly reading any text that happens to reside in clipboards, which computers and other devices use to store data that has been cut or copied from things like password managers and email programs. With no clear reason for doing so, researchers Talal Haj Bakry and Tommy Mysk found, the apps deliberately called an iOS programming interface that retrieves text from users clipboards.
In many cases, the covert reading isnt limited to data stored on the local device. In the event the iPhone or iPad uses the same Apple ID as other Apple devices and are within roughly 10 feet of each other, all of them share a universal clipboard, meaning contents can be copied from the app of one device and pasted into an app running on a separate device.
That leaves open the possibility that an app on an iPhone will read sensitive data on the clipboards of other connected devices. This could include bitcoin addresses, passwords, or email messages that are temporarily stored on the clipboard of a nearby Mac or iPad. Despite running on a separate device, the iOS apps can easily read the sensitive data stored on the other machines.
“Its very, very dangerous,” Mysk said in an interview on Friday, referring to the apps indiscriminate reading of clipboard data. “These apps are reading clipboards, and theres no reason to do this. An app that doest have a text field to enter text has no reason to read clipboard text.”
The video below demonstrates universal clipboard reading:
Back in the news
While Haj Bakry and Mysk published their research in March, the invasive apps made headlines again this week with the developer beta release of iOS 14. A novel feature Apple added provides a banner warning every time an app reads clipboard contents. As large numbers of people began testing the beta release, they quickly came to appreciate just how many apps engage in the practice and just how often they do it.
This YouTube video, which has racked up more than 87,000 views since it was posted on Tuesday, shows a small sample of the apps triggering the new warning
TikTok in the spotlight
Recent headlines have focused particular attention on TikTok, in large part because of its massive base of active users (reported to be 800 million, with an estimated 104 million iOS installs in the first half of 2018 alone, making it the most downloaded app for that period).
TikToks continued snooping has gotten extra scrutiny for other reasons. When called out in March, the video-sharing provider told UK publication The Telegraph it would end the practice in the coming weeks. Mysk said that the app never stopped the monitoring. Whats more, a Wednesday Twitter thread revealed that the clipboard reading occurred each time a user entered a punctuation mark or tapped the space bar while composing a comment. That means the clipboard reading can happen every second or so, a much more aggressive pace than documented in the March research, which found monitoring happened when the app was opened or reopened.
1. Have something on your clipboard. Eg copy some text from Notes or a website
2. Open TikTok and start typing in any text field
3. You learn from iOS 14 beta each time an app “pastes” – but in this instance I didnt request it, and none of that text appears in UI
— Jeremy Burge (@jeremyburge) June 24, 2020
In a statement, TikTok representatives wrote:
Following the beta release of iOS14 on June 22, users saw notifications while using a number of popular apps. For TikTok, this was triggered by a feature designed to identify repetitive, spammy behavior. We have already submitted an updated version of the app to the App Store removing the anti-spam feature to eliminate any potential confusion.
TikTok is committed to protecting users' privacy and being transparent about how our app works. We look forward to welcoming outside experts to our Transparency Center later this year.
On background, a spokesperson said that TikTok for Android never implemented the anti-spam feature.
I sent follow-up questions asking (1) if the TikTok version for Android monitored clipboards for any other reason, (2) if any clipboard text was uploaded from the device, and (3) why TikTok didnt remove the monitoring as promised in March. The spokesperson has yet to respond. This post will be updated if a reply comes later.
Not just TikTok
In all, the researchers found the following iOS apps were reading users clipboard data every time the app was opened with no clear reason for doing so:
- App Name — BundleID
- ABC News — com.abcnews.ABCNews
- Al Jazeera English — ajenglishiphone
- CBC News — ca.cbc.CBCNews
- CBS News — com.H443NM7F8H.CBSNews
- CNBC — com.nbcuni.cnbc.cnbcrtipad
- Fox News — com.foxnews.foxnews
- News Break — com.particlenews.newsbreak
- New York Times — com.nytimes.NYTimes
- NPR — org.npr.nprnews
- ntv Nachrichten — de.n-tv.n-tvmobil
- Reuters — com.thomsonreuters.Reuters
- Russia Today — com.rt.RTNewsEnglish
- Stern Nachrichten — de.grunerundjahr.sternneu
- The Economist — com.economist.lamarr
- The Huffington Post — com.huffingtonpost.HuffingtonPost
- The Wall Street Journal — com.dowjones.WSJ.ipad
- Vice News — com.vice.news.VICE-News
- 8 Ball Pool — com.miniclip.8ballpoolmult
- AMAZE!!! — com.amaze.game
- Bejeweled — com.ea.ios.bejeweledskies
- Block Puzzle —Game.BlockPuzzle
- Classic Bejeweled — com.popcap.ios.Bej3
- Classic Bejeweled HD —com.popcap.ios.Bej3HD
- FlipTheGun — com.playgendary.flipgun
- Fruit Ninja — com.halfbrick.FruitNinjaLite
- Golfmasters — com.playgendary.sportmasterstwo
- Letter Soup — com.candywriter.apollo7
- Love Nikki — com.elex.nikki
- My Emma — com.crazylabs.myemma
- Plants vs. Zombies Heroes — com.ea.ios.pvzheroes
- Pooking – Billiards City — com.pool.club.billiards.city
- PUBG Mobile — com.tencent.ig
- Tomb of the Mask — com.happymagenta.fromcore
- Tomb of the Mask: Color — com.happymagenta.totm2
- Total Party Kill — com.adventureislands.totalpartykill
- Watermarbling — com.hydro.dipping