TikTok Data Collection: How to Protect Your Privacy and Personal Information

With the internet reaching more people, web and mobile applications are rising to satisfy their needs. Social media is a market with a lot of competition. The application you use usually depends on how you want to keep up with your friends and family. 

Social media giants like Facebook have come under heavy fire from governments, especially the USA, regarding users’ safety and privacy. In the same vein, TikTok is a worthy mention. In the past few years, it has come under scrutiny and continues to pay the price for its link to China. 

What Is TikTok? 

TikTok is a popular social media application that allows users to create content by making short videos. ByteDance, a Chinese company, owns it. Users can share videos with followers, friends, and on other social media platforms. Also called Douyin in China, you can create different video content, including dance, educational, comedy, and promotional. 

There is a 60 second limit on videos, allowing users to bring out their creativity in a short time. TikTok’s rise to fame started when ByteDance bought the famous Musical.ly and merged all its data with TikTok. Unlike Musical.ly, TikTok has a more comprehensive range and more features, allowing content creators and other creatives to take advantage of that and an already large user base. 

TikTok has more than 500 million active users and has had over two billion global downloads. In about four years, this video-sharing application has garnered unreal attention. Spread over 150 markets and available in 75 languages, it reaches several local communities and encourages local challenges. In the United States alone, it has amassed more than 130 million downloads. 

Privacy Issues With TikTok 

Despite being relatively new, TikTok has had a plethora of issues. Most of these issues center around its Chinese origin and protecting the privacy of users. The Chinese government is known to secretly collect and monitor data from companies originating and operating from China, using these companies as spying agents. 

TikTok has been in and out of the news because of several privacy concerns. In January 2020, a security company in the US discovered a security issue in TikTok that can present an opportunity for hackers to access user accounts. 

To explore the privacy issues fully, let’s look at some countries that have taken decisive actions against TikTok due to privacy and content concerns.

1. On 27 February 2019, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) hit TikTok owners–ByteDance with a fine for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. They discovered TikTok was collecting data from minors aged 12 and below. In response, TikTok added a mode for kids-only. 

2. On 29 June 2020, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in India banned the application along with over 200 Chinese applications. In summary, the reason for the ban was to protect Indian citizens and the Indian government from sabotage. 

3. On 6 August 2020, the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, gave ByteDance a 45-day ultimatum to sell TikTok through a signed executive order. Eight days later, another order was announced for ByteDance to sell the U.S portion of its TikTok business to a US-based company within 90 days. However, TikTok successfully prevented the US government from banning it and made a deal with Oracle to host it.

4. Other countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Pakistan have also banned TikTok. These countries lean towards concerns with content rather than security/privacy concerns. 

There have also been lawsuits and complaints from individuals and groups of people. For example, TikTok TikTok settled a class-action lawsuit against it with $92 million against it with $92 million in February 2021. This lawsuit alleged that TikTok moved data that can identify US citizens to servers in China.

In another recent event, the BEUC (European Consumer Organisation) has attacked TikTok’s privacy policy for lack of transparency and the potential violation of the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). Despite having to deal with several of these issues, TikTok continues to grow.

Why Do Applications Like TikTok Need Permissions on Your Device?

Just like the average person accepts a product’s terms and conditions without reading them, mobile device users also accept permissions from applications without knowing why. Permissions are a way to provide applications access to data on your device. It is imperative for users to understand why these apps need permissions and when it becomes suspicious for certain apps to request specific permissions.

Applications usually transmit data between your device and their servers. Not understanding permissions can lead to giving over personal information to malicious entities. An application requiring more than the necessary permissions to function can be a security risk. For example, a gaming application requesting permission to access your messages is usually a red flag. 

Knowing the nature of an application will help users to understand the permissions it requires. For instance, a chat application like Whatsapp requesting access to your gallery is necessary for sharing pictures with friends and families. The key lies in asking why and getting a sufficient answer. Don’t accept access requests if you’re not satisfied with the answer to why an app needs access. You can always revisit the permissions apps have on your device and change them. 

What Data Does TikTok Collect? 

In order to collect user data, TikTok requires access to certain parts of your device. Let’s take a look at the result of accepting these permissions. 

1. Camera and Gallery/Photos

Accepting this permission gives TikTok access to the device’s camera and allows users to take pictures and videos with the application. Access to the gallery/photos permits the upload of images and videos already stored there. 

2. Location 

Accepting the location permission gives TikTok access to the GPS on your device and allows the application to see your precise and approximate location. TikTok can use this data to provide content to users based on their location. 

3. Contacts

Allowing access to contacts on your device permits full access to your address book. TikTok uses this to allow users to find friends already on the application. 

4. Microphone

This permission is necessary to record audio. 

5. Storage

Accepting this permission gives TikTok access to read and write data to your device’s storage.

6. Network

This permission gives TikTok access to your network. Accepting it will permit viewing your mobile and Wi-Fi connections. 

7. Other Permissions

Other permissions are for functions like preventing your device from sleeping, installing/uninstalling shortcuts, requesting install packages, reading badge notifications, collecting device information, and a few others. TikTok can also get data from other social media accounts if users give them access. 

The primary concern at the moment is where TikTok stores this data. According to its privacy policy, TikTok says it keeps all US user data in the US, with backups in Singapore. On the other hand, its EU privacy policy states that TikTok stores data outside the EEA (European Economic Area). This lack of transparency is why groups like the BEUC are calling for an investigation into TikTok. 

How To Protect Your Privacy and Personal Information on TikTok

On social media, the most vulnerable group of people are minors. It is up to parents to monitor their children and enable settings that will protect their privacy. However, TikTok has a kids-only mode for children below the age of thirteen. 

Generally, there are several ways to stay safe and keep personal information away from opportunists.

Let’s look at a couple of the ways you can stay safe. 

1. Enable Two-Factor Authentication

2FA prevents hackers from gaining access to your account. Enabling it ensures your identity is verified by TikTok twice before you have access.

2. Take Advantage of TikTok’s Privacy and Safety Settings

The first thing to do if you’re older than thirteen is to make your account private. It is important to note that even with a private account, your profile information is available for all Tiktok users to see. However, only friends and approved subscribers can access your videos. To change your account to private, go to settings and privacy, select privacy and safety, then change the private account option. 

In the same menu, you can also remove the option for TikTok to recommend your profile. The privacy and safety menu allows you to manage who can view, like, comment, make duets, and download your videos. You can also block people and filter keywords. 

3. Manage Permissions

Knowing that you have the power to change permissions, look through the permissions TikTok has and if you feel anyone is unnecessary, remove it. For example, the location permission is unnecessary for TikTok to function; removing it will cause no harm.

4. Enable Family Pairing

Family pairing is a setting that allows parents to monitor their children’s accounts and keep them safe. 

Conclusion

Like every social media app, TikTok requires specific permissions to provide the best service to users. Its privacy and safety settings allow users more control over their accounts and the content they create. However, it needs to be more transparent on where it stores its European users’ data and a few other things. Reviewing its privacy policy and changing a few things will be a welcome development.