Tik Tok and Privacy | Emily Gao

Tik Tok and Privacy 

By Emily Gao

We all know, or at least have heard about, the Facebook data scandal. If you haven’t, here’s a breakdown: Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm, was outed by The New York Times, The Observer, and Channel 4 News in March 2018 for using Facebook as an outlet to acquire personal data about people in the United States. Facebook had a third-party app called “This Is Your Digital Life,” utilized by 270,000 Facebook users. The developers of this app gave Cambridge Analytica access to the personal information of these users, as well as all their friend networks. This resulted in a data breach sizing 87 million Facebook users. It was found that Cambridge Analytica performed services for Ted Cruz’s and Donald Trump’s Presidential Campaign. 

This was a nightmare for all parties involved: the violated Facebook users, Facebook as a business, and American citizens as a whole. It opened up our country's eyes to the vulnerability of the internet and social media. Thankfully, since Cambridge Analytica was a company in the United Kingdom, it fell under the jurisdiction of the Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK’s data regulation agency. Ultimately, Cambridge Analytica pled guilty to breaking the law and shut down its doors.  

There has been speculation of another possible privacy breach within the realm of social media. One that if true, has implications for worse than that of the Facebook data scandal in 2018. It involves an app that we all know and (some of us) love: TikTok.

TikTok is a social media platform for users to create and share short homemade videos. The app was launched in 2017 by ByteDance, a Chinese Internet tech company known to operate its many social media platforms via artificial intelligence and machine learning rather than with employees, and has exploded in popularity in the US, totaling 800 million downloads and half a billion active users. 

In late 2018, investigative data privacy whistleblower David Carroll read between the fine print of the Tik Tok’s privacy policy and found these haunting phrases:

“We will also share your information with any member or affiliate of our group, in China, for the purposes set out above, to assist in the improvement and optimisation of the Platform, in order to prevent illegal uses, increase user numbers, development, engineering and analysis of information for our internal business purposes…”

This confirms that any TikTok user on the platform before 2019 may have had their data harvested and transferred for use in China. Slightly worrying, but it could be worse.

Earlier this year, ByteDance was fined a whopping $5.7 million by the Federal Trade Commission for violating the US Child privacy law. The US government stated that ByteDance had failed to ask for parental consent before collecting the personal information of users under the age of 13. Whether this is a genuine mistake of a foreign company unfamiliar with US law or an attempt to maximize the amount of information they have on American minors, this occurrence disturbing nonetheless. 

TikTok’s privacy policy states that its users’ personal information will stay in the realms of the app, but so did Facebook’s. And this didn’t stop Cambridge Analytica. There is currently no evidence of ByteDance or TikTok gathering data for use in questionable or illegal matters. But it never hurts to be careful.