As the CEO of TikTok seeks to appease US lawmakers, it’s time for all of us to think about the wealth of personal information that TikTok and other social media giants collect about us.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew has appeared before the US Congress to give his opinion on the app’s data security and privacy practices and possible links to the Chinese government amid nationwide discussions about a blanket ban on TikTok in the US.
Short video app – which is most downloaded app The year 2022 – both in the US and around the world – has been mired in controversy over a range of cybersecurity and privacy issues, including claims of excessive harvesting of user data and its sharing with the Chinese government, harmful effects on children and their mental health, and data leaks personal.
While most of such concerns aren’t exactly unique to TikTok, no other social media platform has garnered as much attention as the smash-hit video app. This is not only because TikTok is often said to collect more information from users than the industry average and uses a more robust recommendation algorithm than other platforms, but mainly because many believe the app poses a risk to national security.
India instituted a nationwide ban on apps in 2020 while there are growing numbers countries have banned TikTok from government issued devices. The US is also now considering taking things a step further and banning the app completely.
Here are some of the top questions around TikTok and perhaps more importantly, what you can do to help protect your data or that of your child using TikTok.
What data does TikTok collect?
The discussion and much of the recent evidence revolves around the findings of researchers at Internet 2.0, an Australian cybersecurity company. according to them report starting in July 2022, TikTok requests excessive device permissions and collects excessive amounts of data – far more than is necessary for its functioning. For example, the app collects data about all the apps installed on the phone, detailed information about the Android operating system, and requests access to the phone’s contacts.
“For the TikTok app to work properly, most of the device data access and collection is unnecessary,” said Internet 2.0 chief security engineer Thomas Perkins. “Applications can and will run successfully without any data being collected. This leads us to believe that the only reason this information was collected was for data collection.”
At the same time, the company receives your approximate location from your device’s GPS data even when location services are turned off. It also collects your transaction and purchase history, according to an Internet 2.0 report.
Chew responded to these allegations by saying that the current version of the app does not collect precise or approximate GPS information from US users. He also denied sharing data with the Chinese government. “TikTok, as a US company incorporated in the United States of America, is subject to United States laws,” read the statement. “TikTok has never shared, nor accepted requests to share, US user data with the Chinese government. TikTok also will not honor such requests if they are ever made.
After all, how can you take back (some of) your privacy – assuming you don’t want to give up using the app altogether?
How to protect (part of) your privacy while using TikTok?
If you want to view content on TikTok while providing as little data as possible, use the official TikTok website in a web browser. Keep in mind that TikTok may still collect some information using browser cookies and other trackers.
However, without an account it is not possible to post videos, enter comments or like any video. If you want to be an active user with the account, you can at least limit the sharing of some data in the settings.
For further protection, don’t allow TikTok to sync phone contacts or Facebook friends, and limit ad personalization. You can step things up a notch and use a burner phone, that is, a cheap phone designed for temporary use after which it can be discarded, along with a proxy service to mask your IP address and a VPN to also hide your location.
However, in a 2022 investigation, Consumer Reports, a US-based non-profit consumer organization, revealed that TikTok collects data even on people who have never owned the TikTok app or visited the platform’s website.
That’s because TikTok receives data from its partners which collects information about the people who visit their website. Other leading platforms like Google or Meta (Facebook) use the same strategy for advertising purposes.
“Like other platforms, the data we receive from advertisers is used to improve the effectiveness of our advertising services,” Melanie Bosselait, a spokesperson for TikTok, responded to the Consumer Reports findings.
Leaks, spies and more?
While it’s true that concerns around data privacy aren’t unique to TikTok, the short video app has faced several scandals that have raised questions about its independence.
TikTok is owned by Beijing-based tech giant ByteDance. In December 2022 it was confirmed that it was spying on journalists as part of an effort to trace journalists’ sources, according to an internal email obtained and cited by Forbes.
“I was very disappointed when I was informed of the situation… and I’m sure you feel the same way,” wrote ByteDance CEO Rubo Liang on an internal account. email shared with Forbes. “The public trust that we have worked so hard to build will be significantly damaged by the mistakes of a few individuals. … I believe this situation will serve as a lesson to all of us.”
Chew described this incident as an error that the company immediately addressed. “We also notified this Committee of this misconduct within a short period of notifying our employees,” Chew wrote. “I condemn this mistake in the strongest possible terms.”
In June 2022, BuzzFeed reviews leaked audio from more than 80 internal TikTok meetings, found 14 statements from nine employees indicating engineers in China had access to US data. “Everything is looking in China,” a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department said in a September 2021 meeting, as quoted by BuzzFeed. During another meeting, a different employee mentioned a Beijing-based engineer whom he described as the “Main Admin” who “had access to everything”.
Another thorny point involves China’s National Security Law from 2017 which requires Chinese companies to “support, assist and cooperate” with national intelligence efforts, Political notes.
In his speech, Chew reiterated that all American data is stored in America and hosted by a company headquartered in America. ByteDance has formed a special purpose subsidiary called TikTok US Data Security Inc. (USDS) which controls all access to systems containing US user data.
Back in 2019, the Washington Post raised another suspicion when post stories involving the missing TikTok posts about the ongoing Hong Kong protests in September 2019. Additionally, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed that the app was blocking pro-Hong Kong content from American users. ByteDance rejected the allegations, and subsequent tests conducted by BuzzFeed News found no censorship.
“Claims of censorship on TikTok do not appear to take into account the fact that American youth also do not appear to be creating viral pro-Hong Kong content on platforms like Facebook or Instagram,” BuzzFeed wrote.
Protecting children on TikTok
Unlike other social media sites, TikTok strives to protect children from exposure to the harmful content, bullying, self-harm, eating disorders or other risks that lurk online.
For example, a recent Italian study among 78 patients with eating disorders found that watching TikTok content reduces self-esteem 59% of them, and 27% report significant changes regarding TikTok in their daily lives. TikTok is the main social media platform for almost 63 percent of all patients surveyed.
Additionally, the US Department of Homeland Security has also launched an investigation into allegations that TikTok is not doing enough to combat child sexual abuse material. The Financial Times reported in April 2022.
Chew said that TikTok constantly screens content for indications of potential predatory or abusive behavior. It also removes content that promotes bullying, hateful behavior, eating disorders, and violent extremism.
“Every video uploaded to TikTok goes through automatic moderation, and potentially infringing content is automatically removed or upscaled for human review by one of our expert moderators who have undergone special training to detect signs of grooming or predatory behavior,” Chew wrote.
To address child protection concerns, TikTok introduced a feature called Family Pairing in 2020. As we explained in our article back then, the tool provides parents some level of control and oversight over their children’s accounts.
Parents can link their TikTok account to their child’s account and set parental controls, including daily screen time, limited exposure to some content, search options for children, and the ability to find others.
During the ongoing debate about the future of TikTok in the United States, the social media platform announced a new tool for parents on March 1, 2023. Parents can select different time limits depending on the day of the week and set a schedule to mute notifications. TikTok also announced a screen time dashboard for Family Pairing, which provides a summary of time on the app, the number of times TikTok was opened, and a breakdown of total time spent during the day and night.