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 isn’t 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.
“It’s 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 there’s 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…