Unpacking TikTok Surveillance: Understanding Privacy Concerns and Implications
AUTHOR: Annika Kannen
Summary of the article
The article delves into TikTok’s escalating popularity and the associated privacy concerns. It explores how TikTok’s algorithm collects vast amounts of personal data, including user activity within the app, location details, and information from other sources. This extensive data gathering raises alarm about privacy infringement and its potential impact on users’ rights, including the creation of filter bubbles that reinforce discriminatory beliefs. The article details the types of information TikTok collects, highlighting the discrepancies between their practices and users’ right to privacy. It also emphasizes the need for clearer regulations to protect user privacy in the digital realm.
TikTok is a social media platform that has been on the rise for the past few years. Of over 1 billion users, many are children and young people between the ages of 13 and 17. One of the most talked about features of TikTok is its “For You” page. As the name suggests, the TikTok “For you” page is a place to discover new content tailored specifically to you. For many, this is TikTok’s biggest selling point. And why should you not enjoy content specifically picked for you?
As already mentioned prior, the accurate algorithm is a big part of TikTok’s appeal – and their business strategy. In their report “Caught in TikTok’s Surveillance Web”, Amnesty International highlighted the Surveillance-Based Business model of many social media companies. Collecting data about your interests and what you would like to see benefits them in more than one way. It gives them information about what will keep you on their app the longest, showing you things they know you will enjoy, giving you lots of opportunities to also view advertisements. Those advertisements are specifically targeted to you, based on what the algorithm thinks you need to buy. In 2022, about 48.4% of all global spending on advertisement has been spent on social media ads. Because of the huge profit TikTok and other companies make from utilizing your data, many researchers have warned for a long time that they should not be allowed to self-regulate when it comes to the privacy of their users. Instead there should be clear laws in place to prevent them from sacrificing their users right to privacy for profit.
What is special about TikTok, when other companies have been using these strategies for a long time? TikTok collects a uniquely big amount of personal data from their users, not only about their activity on the app, but also their approximate location, their activity on other parts of the internet or even in-store purchases if it is shared by one of their partners. And while TikTok states it “does not sell your personal information or share your personal information to third parties for purposes of cross-context behavioral advertising where restricted by applicable law”, the company has also implied it might share this information for “business purposes”. This practice is inconsistent with the right to privacy and poses a threat to other human right, such as non-discrimination.
While many people think that TikTok being threat to the human right to non-discrimination, I would like to refer back to their algorithm being designed to present you with content you would enjoy. For most of us this is funny trends, kitten videos or fashion content, but TikTok does not discriminate between discriminatory and harmless content. This can lead to the creation of filter bubbles, where the user is only ever exposed to content that reinforces their discriminatory beliefs and biases, even pushing them into a more extreme direction.
So what data exactly does TikTok collect from you? In general, there are 3 sources of information about you: 1) Information you give to the platform yourself, 2) Information that is automatically collected and 3) Information from other sources. If you are currently in the EU, the UK or Switzerland and use TikTok, this is some of the information TikTok collects about you:
Information you provide.
- TikTok collects your profile information, meaning your password, date of birth, username, phone number and email address.
- It collects every aspect of the content you post yourself (audio recording and videos, hashtags etc.) and the associated meta-data, which includes where the video was recorded and by whom.
- They collect data from your device, like the content you choose to copy and paste to TikTok or from TikTok to another platform.
- If you use the TikTok private messages to communicate with your friends, it collects the content of the message and again, the associated metadata.
- The names, phone numbers and email addresses of your contacts (if you allow TikTok to sync with your contacts)
- If you purchase goods through the TikTok shopping features, it saves your payment card information, billing and delivery information and of course, the items you purchased.
- Information you choose to provide when participating in a survey by TikTok and the information you give them if you contact them directly.
Information that is automatically collected
- Information about how you engage with the platform, like the content you view, the duration and frequency and engagement with other users.
- Inferences about age-group and gender
- They collect device and network connection information, like the model of your device, your keystroke rhythms, IP address and system language.
- They automatically collect information about your approximate location when using the platform.
Information from other sources
- Advertising partner can share information about you and your behavior outside the platform with TikTok.
- If you choose to use a sign-in feature of another platform to sign up for TikTok, it shares contact information about you with TikTok (e.g. email address and phone number)
- They may receive information from others if you are mentioned in the user content or direct messages of other people or if another user provides information about you to them.
While all this is outlined in TikTok’s Privacy Policies, many people have never read or might not understand the terms they agree to when using TikTok and this is often what social media companies are counting on. This leads to many people being unaware of the extent of their digital footprint. Forcing companies to respect their user’s privacy and prioritize us over profit is not something any individual can do. But what we can do is pay attention, because the truth is often hidden in the fine print.