Does TikTok Pose a Threat to Your Data Privacy?


TikTok has always been under scrutiny about the data they collect, what they do with it, and how it is used for bettering the end users experience.

It’s important to first consider where this mainstream hyper fixation on user data came from. I think it was around the congressional hearings with Facebook, pre-Meta. During that time you had Mark Zuckerberg in congress trying to explain to politicians exactly how Facebook worked, what it did, and how it did it. It felt eerily like younger people teaching an older generation on how to program their VCR’s from flashing 12:00. The only real positive that came from it is Zuck went back to his teams and started to develop a much more understandable Terms and Conditions, Community Guidelines, and supportive documentation about their tools, and how users should use them responsibly. This way it read more like something every person could understand without a law degree. As someone in tech, previous iterations were difficult to map without tracing back the language.

This effort was short lived. Now that the whole company has shifted to a new parent company “Meta,” there are so many loose ends, in all regard, everything. Right now you can find several different methods or instructions on doing several different things, branded in several different ways. As a tech professional it is so frustrating to find so many elements of the same platforms so half-assed. Nothing is owned by their teams, no one is taking charge of any of the elements and making sure it is completely developed before loosely sending into the masses. Maybe that is the point. With Zuckerberg focused less on Meta, and more on his Metaverse, it seems like Facebook and Instagram have taken a backseat with no one driving the bus.

How does this play into TikTok? Well, for one we should all recognize (and yes it has been beaten into our minds from mass media) it derives from a Chinese based company. Cool. So why is that bad? That’s probably a slippery slope we don’t want to get into. Regardless, the collection and usage of consumer data is nothing new. What is new is this “daily outrage” people have about literally anything. What are we mad about today?

Here is a sample of the data that is collected and used by TikTok. This list is not exhaustive.

  1. User profile information: This includes information that users provide when they create a TikTok account, such as their name, username, profile picture, and bio.
  2. Content that users create: TikTok collects the videos, comments, and other content that users create and share on the platform.
  3. Device and network information: TikTok collects information about the devices and networks that users use to access the app, including IP address, device type, operating system, and mobile network information.
  4. Usage data: TikTok collects information about how users interact with the app, including the videos they watch, the accounts they follow, and the comments and likes they make.
  5. Location data: TikTok collects information about users’ locations using GPS, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi signals.
  6. Advertisements: TikTok collects information about the advertisements that users see and interact with, including which ads were shown, how often they were shown, and whether users clicked on them.

This is nothing new. Not just social media, but any platform, service provider, anything you do on the internet that has the intent to sell you something will be collecting this data. Let me say it again for the users in the back: anything you do on the internet that has the intent to sell you something will be collecting this data.

No matter what you do online there will always be something or someone trying to “bucket” you either through cookieing, pixeling, cohorting, behavior, purchase history, really anything to make sure they can market to you. In all reality, you are not just the consumer, you are dollar signs to a company. You are a profit margin. The blood in your veins, the hair on your head, the sweat you pour, none of it matters unless the advertiser can get things in front of your eyes to sell you something you will likely buy based on literally everything you do online.

Another advertiser recently did such a good job of comforting their users by making them think with their new product they could turn off advertising altogether. Apple. The bane of every advertisers existence. For one, Apple made their advertising so convincing the majority of their users were so pumped when they upgraded to iOS14 they could turn off advertising for themselves. They would no longer get advertising at all. But Apple was clever that they didn’t explicitly say it. They suggested the advertisers would stop “following them.” In the commercials you would see advertisements as people following the protagonist, and when they flipped the switch the followers would *poof* into thin air. Compelling, right? What they didn’t say or show is that this “switch” turned off the ability for 3rd party platforms to collect and use consumer data to curate a “personalized” advertising experience.

Now you have a bunch of people assuming they have turned off advertising, when in reality they have disallowed platforms and services to ensure advertising is getting to the users that matter. So when you were getting ads for things you cared about, now you might get ads from new and improved semi-truck mud flaps. No matter what, you are going to get ads, but it is up to you if you want that experience personalized or not. The other side is that now when advertisers have audiences set up in their platforms where they develop and deploy ads to targeted users, it is not as effective nor accurate.

To bring this full circle, TikTok is not using your data to spy on you. To put it bluntly, do you really, truly, honestly think the Chinese government (or public company), really cares about how many dance trends you engage with? What makes you think you out of a billion monthly active users, a Chinese company is going to be that invested in you? Not to be a pessimist, but unless you are one of the elite 1% uber wealthy (most likely using a VPN and an alias account), there is no need for alarm. TikTok uses your data to curate content that makes you spend more time and money in the app. Plain and simple.