Editor’s note: You can see at the top of this article the latest news, statements and updates in the case of TikTok tracking users. Further down below, you can find our original coverage of Tiktok tracking concerns. Specifically, we compiled the security and privacy issues that led to the the popular social media app getting banned around the world for government employees, and the concerns you should have about TikTok tracking you if you use this app.
Update May 18, 2023: TikTok banned in Montana – the first state to do so
After more than a few years of discussions over a possible TikTok ban over fears of TikTok tracking users, Montana became the first state to ban the social media app starting with January 2024. This is the first US state to totally ban TikTok, not just ban it for government workers and their devices.
On May 17, Governor Greg Gianforte signed a law designed to stop social media apps (and primarily TikTok) from tracking its users between state lines, saying citizens have to be protected from “Chinese Communist Party Surveillance.” You can read more on that here.
Update March 23, 2023: TikTok CEO testifies before US authorities
On Thursday, TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing entitled “TikTok: How Congress can Safeguard American Data Privacy and Protect Children from Online Harms.”
According to Reuters, US lawmakers are convinced that TikTok is a “tool” of the Chinese Communist Party – and that the content it hosts can affect children.
“TikTok could be designed to minimize the harm to kids but a decision was made to aggressively addict kids in the name of profits,” said Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat, quoted by Reuters.
According to the outlet, Chew, TikTok’s CEO, began his testimony by highlighting his Singaporean roots to emphasize that TikTok does not operate at the request of the Chinese Government. His testimony was met with adversity by the US lawmakers and bipartisan legislation is in the works to try to curtail TikTok’s tracking practices.
“It is our commitment to this committee and all our users that we will keep (TikTok) free from any manipulation by any government,” Chew said on Thursday.
Update on 20.03.2023: The list of countries TikTok is banned in and an update on the TikTok tracking journalists case
March 2023 brings new negative coverage about TikTok tracking – how the US is planning to investigate an incident where the social media app was used to stalk journalists and which countries have banned TikTok due to privacy concerns.
First, a report from Forbes reveals that the FBI and DoJ are investigating Bytedance after an earlier report revealed the company had used TikTok to track journalists.
From the report:
According to a source in position to know, the DOJ Criminal Division, Fraud Section, working alongside the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, has subpoenaed information from ByteDance regarding efforts by its employees to access U.S. journalists’ location information or other private user data using the TikTok app. According to two sources, the FBI has been conducting interviews related to the surveillance. ByteDance’s use of the app to surveil U.S. citizens was first reported by Forbes in October, and confirmed by an internal company investigation in December.
“We have strongly condemned the actions of the individuals found to have been involved, and they are no longer employed at ByteDance. Our internal investigation is still ongoing, and we will cooperate with any official investigations when brought to us,” said ByteDance spokesperson Jennifer Banks.
Then, Gizmodo compiled a list of the countries that banned TikTok for tracking and other privacy-infringement concerns.
According to the journalists at Gizmodo, a string of TikTok bans around the world tries to curb ByteDance and, implicitly, the Chinese government’s influence.
Starting in December 2022, the US House of Representative banned TikTok from the phones of staffers, then Taiwan followed suit, barring employees from using the TikTok app on any official device.
Since then, the European commission followed suit, banning TikTok on 32,000 employee’s phones, and the UK did the same thing. Canada also banned TikTok from government employee use, as well as Latvia, Denmark, Belgium and the list goes on.
23.12.2022 update: be very careful because TikTok employees actually have the ability to track your location if you use the app.
On December 22, ByteDance admitted that four of their employees used the app as a surveillance method for journalists who reported on TikTok’s ties with the Chinese government.
You read that right: worried about what journalists might discover about TikTok, employees actually used the app to track multiple journalists. In short, NO. You cannot stop TikTok from tracking you.
You can try but read this story first to decide if you have any chance of maintaining your privacy while using this app.
Below you’ll find our original article, which chronicles all the TikTok privacy and security concerns through the years.
Tiktok privacy concerns have been rising since the app’s release but, with recent reports, it’s clear that it’s essential to learn how to turn off Tiktok tracking. Still, no doubt about it, it’s a fun app and it’s hard to stop using it.
Let’s see exactly what type of data TikTok collects, what they do with it and then we’ll give you some helpful tips to stop Tiktok from tracking you.
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Privacy concerns and the TikTok tracking report accusing ByteDance of attempted surveillance
In October 2022, Forbes released a concerning Tiktok tracking report where the company was accused of planning to use the app to monitor the physical location of specific American citizens.
According to the outlet, the ByteDance Internal Audit and Risk Control department, which usually investigates potential misconduct by current and former employees, had actually planned to collect data for someone who had no relationship with the company.
“But the material reviewed by Forbes indicates that ByteDance’s Internal Audit team was planning to use this location information to surveil individual American citizens, not to target ads or any of these other purposes. Forbes is not disclosing the nature and purpose of the planned surveillance referenced in the materials in order to protect sources. TikTok and ByteDance did not answer questions about whether Internal Audit has specifically targeted any members of the U.S. government, activists, public figures or journalists,” said this TikTok tracking report.
ByteDance quickly denied the story, saying that it does not collect “precise” GPS data to track users and the app has never been used to target “members of the US government, activists, public figures or journalists”.
Earlier, news outlet TheWrap obtained two studies that say TikTok and its parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, have full access to your data.
The studies were made by white hat security experts, aka people who hack in order to test security boundaries and alert the public to threats. According to the outlet, their findings were verified with five independent experts.
And those reports check out with other sources as well. Marketing company URL Genius found that TikTok and YouTube collect more user personal data than any other social media app.
However, unlike YouTube, which collects your data for Google, TikTok allows third-party trackers on its platform – so that means that there’s no telling where your Tiktok data goes. Those third-party trackers can also track your activity even after you close Tiktok.
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Last year, a Reddit user called “bangorlol” claimed to have reverse engineered Tiktok and called it “a data collection service that is thinly-veiled as a social network”.
He said that Bytedance has access to every detail about your phone hardware, including how much disk space you have left, other apps you installed, things about your network (IP, router MAC, wifi access point name) and even your location – every 30 seconds or so.
A Tiktok class action lawsuit exists in the state of Illinois, asking Bytedance to pay penalties for how they handle user data. All persons who reside in the United States who used the TikTok or Musical.ly app prior to September 30, 2021, and all persons who used the apps to create videos by the same date, could submit a claim to be reimbursed for the way their personal information was used. Tiktok’s mother company, Bytedance, was force to pay out $92 million in the settlement.
But that was just the beginning and another Tiktok lawsuit is probably brewing.
Democrat senator Amy Klobuchar and republican senator John Thune sent TikTok an openly released letter asking them what exactly they are doing with the biometric data they collect, particularly “faceprints” and “voiceprints”.
As of now, Bytedance has not responded to the summons with any clarification.
I’s clear that, if you want a modicum of online privacy, you have to take some measures to protect yourself. Let’s see how.
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How to download your Tiktok data
Since both the US and EU mandate that social media apps have to show you what data they collect, you can download your TikTok data as well and see what you shared with ByteDance.
Unfortunately, there is no “download your TikTok data” automated tool like on other apps. Instead, you have to request your personal data.
To do so, open the TikTok app, tap the 3-line icon in the top right. Then, go to Privacy and select Personalize and data. You’ll then have a “Download TikTok Data” option which, if clicked, gives you more instructions.
How to stop Tiktok from tracking you (quick guide)
The bad news is you can’t fully prevent Tiktok from tracking you, no matter what. Since Tiktok can actually avoid Apple privacy protections and even Google ones, according to recent reports, the safest way to avoid being tracked is to simply uninstall Tiktok and stop using the app.
But, since for some that’s impossible, there are some steps you can take to protect your privacy:
Set your Tiktok privacy settings to a private account, where only people you know can follow you.
What you share can be a goldmine for scammers and other online threats, so make sure your information only reaches trusted people.
Don’t allow Tiktok access to your contacts, Google account or other social media platforms.
Tiktok continually asks for more permissions to snoop into your other accounts, even when it doesn’t need to do so, so don’t let it. Why would an app designed to let you watch videos want access to your G-Suite?
Don’t allow Tiktok access to your location.
Unlike let’s say photo apps that tag your photos and videos with location so you can find them easier later, Tiktok doesn’t have that functionality – so why should they know where you are every minute of the day?
Don’t share sensitive information in Tiktok messages.
Bytedance, the app’s creator, can read messages sent by users, so don’t include too much detailed info in your chats. That way, you’re protected in the event of a Tiktok leak.
Limit ad personalization.
Tiktok, like most other social media apps, uses targeting to serve you ads. However, you can ask them to use less personal information to do so.
Go to Tiktok’s Settings and Privacy, select Privacy, then Ads Personalization and off “Use of Off-TikTok Activity for Ad Targeting”. It’s not a bulletproof method to avoid Tiktok tracking you for ads but any little bit helps.
Make sure your profile stays as low-profile as possible.
Open Tiktok Settings and Privacy, go to Privacy and turn off the toggle that says “Suggest Your Account to Others.”
Paired with a private Tiktok account, this can limit the number of people who have access to your content.
And lastly, exercise caution. It’s always worth it to be mindful of what you post on social media. Even if online privacy and where your user data goes is no concern, scammers and other malicious individuals use your social media accounts to find information on you.
*Article initially published in February 2022 and updated on November 2nd with new information.
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