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What is TikTok really tracking?

Published onMar 20, 2023
What is TikTok really tracking?

With 1.53 billion users as of 2023, TikTok is the 6th most popular social media platform in the world. In the United States, TikTok is used by more than 100 million monthly active users. An average user spends approximately 1.5 hours every day on the platform. It’s no secret that social media platforms, including TikTok, collect user information. Julian McAuley, a professor of computer science at the University of California San Diego, claims that TikTok, like all major social media companies, collects vast amounts of personal data from users: including a user's age, contact information, viewing habits, search history, and location. However, McAuley notes that TikTok is much more driven by user-specific recommendations compared to other social media platforms. When users ‘like’ posts on TikTok, they provide information to social media companies and other websites where there are ‘like’ button plugins. This allows the app to specifically tailor content to users and keep them more engaged without directly asking their preferences. Additionally, the app curates a “For You” page for each user based on the user’s activity and interaction with other content. While this allows users to be introduced to new content that is specifically tailored to their interests, some users are unhappy with how TikTok tracks their online activity. 

Several class action lawsuits have been filed against TikTok regarding their tracking of users’ personal information. Some users have received settlement payouts from previous lawsuits, one of which resulted in a settlement of ninety-one million dollars. Individual users in the "nationwide class" (who live in the U.S. and used the app prior to September 30, 2021), received $27.84 and those in Illinois who not only used TikTok, but created videos before September 30, 2021, received $167.04.

A California class action alleges that TikTok collected data, including contact information and credit card information, associated with users' use of third party websites without the users' knowledge or consent. On November 25, 2022, Plaintiff Austin Recht filed the class action lawsuit against TikTok Inc. and the parent company, ByteDance Inc., alleging violations of state and federal privacy and wiretap laws. Recht alleges TikTok’s in-app website browser is a “sophisticated data collection mechanism” that inserts JavaScript code into the websites that TikTok users visit. The lawsuit claims that this code is used to track “every detail about TikTok users’ website activity.” In doing so, Defendants have unlawfully captured private and personally identifiable data from users to profit off of.

In another proposed California class action, Yevgeniy S. Androshchuk also alleged that TikTok tracks users' online activity on third-party websites using a JavaScript code script. Further, he alleges that TikTok does not disclose in its terms of service or privacy policies that the app "compels its users to use an in-app browser that inserts JavaScipt code into the external websites that users visit from the TikTok app." This allows TikTok to obtain detailed private and sensitive information about users' physical and mental health without their consent. This suit similarly alleges that this tracking violates federal and state wiretap laws. In addition, Androshchuk is also suing on the basis of invasion of privacy and unjust enrichment. In this suit, Androshchuk seeks to represent all persons who have downloaded TikTok and used its in-app website browser.

Amidst these suits and public concerns, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will testify before Congress in March to address these privacy concerns. The House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce committee has alleged the app is linked to the Chinese Communist Party. Further, the committee has publicly stated, "Americans deserve to know how these actions impact their privacy and data security, as well as what actions TikTok is taking to keep our kids safe from online and offline harms.” The committee has made their concerns clear and declares, “[i]t is now time to continue the committee's efforts to hold Big Tech accountable by bringing TikTok before the committee to provide complete and honest answers for people."

TikTok users are seemingly undeterred by these privacy concerns as TikTok is set to continue growing rapidly in both the number of users and in the amount of time users spend on the app.

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