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TikTok Is Still Invading Your Privacy

Solen Feyissa

You’d be forgiven for not remembering the short period when TikTok was the hottest topic of US politics. It was at the height of the lockdown that the app came under attack for its ties to the Chinese government and dubious data collection practices. There was much talk of banning the app altogether and the discourse around it did raise questions about how much data we give apps on our phones. Then it died down because the pandemic didn’t go anywhere and neither did numerous other privacy violations. Now, TikTok has reignited the issue once again with one change to its privacy policy. Let’s look at what the problem is and why it’s notable.

What Changed?

Tobias Tullius

Early in June, TikTok quietly changed its privacy policy to state that the app now has permission to “collect biometric identifiers and biometric information”. This is one of the more dangerous and hotly debated areas of data collection as biometric information is already being collected by governments and state agencies but private companies, including Facebook, Amazon and Google, are not looking to lag behind either. But, instead of the usual metadata stuff that has a clear purpose in targeted advertising, biometric data collection feels much more nefarious. After all, it can include many things or, in TikTok’s case, “faceprints and voiceprints”. If you’re wondering what that means in plain human — photos and recordings of your voice can be harvested by the app at its discretion.

In fact, this new addendum rests in the section on data collected automatically, meaning TikTok isn’t even doing this selectively. At any moment, when its algorithm deems it appropriate, a picture of your face or a recording of you saying something on the app, can be saved for later use. TikTok states that it will seek permission to collect this data — but only if you’re in a place where such a permission is specifically required by law. In the US that means one of six states that have the appropriate regulations. As I write this article, there is no united federal legislation to curb biometric data collection and usage.

What’s the Big Deal?

Jason Dent

In theory, this shouldn’t be too concerning if you look at the broader market of social media. Plenty of similar apps collect visual and audio information, some to improve artificial intelligence, some to moderate content and some for ad targeting. The more likely scenario, of course, is that most use it for targeting but most companies put the less creepy uses upfront, shifting the concerning cases into the background.

TikTok does not clarify which purposes photos of your face and recordings of your voice will serve. Instead, it has an umbrella section for all data, where you can find out that some of it will be used for targeting ads, some for customizing your feeds and some to “support the social functions” of TikTok, whatever that means in practice. The lack of clarity is emblematic of TikTok’s journey from an up-and-coming app where teens posted goofy dances to a social network caught in the middle of a privacy scandal that’s been going on for over a year now.

TikTok is far from the worst offender when it comes to data collection and privacy violations but it seems determined to rise to the challenge. The app, still in limbo after Biden’s administration halted the appeal process, could have laid low and stayed off privacy advocates’ radars. Instead, it’s gone the Facebook route — when you’re caught in a scandal, keep causing ruckus so that the public eye can never catch on to just one thing and really scrutinize it. It’s gone from discussions of ties to the Chinese government to debates about its data storage to people picking apart its code to the current stage of clear-cut data harvesting in less than a full year.

What’s Going to Happen?

Solen Feyissa

Despite scattered write-ups on this new development, TikTok seems to have pulled off this change with as little friction as possible. The current administration isn’t looking to make an example of it and the privacy advocates are overwhelmed by the ongoing battles with Facebook and Google, which are certainly much bigger fish in this case. So, for now, TikTok glides on with only criticism trying to knock it off its course.

The only real way to influence TikTok’s data collection and any similar practices by its competitors is to pass nationwide legislation that protects user privacy, be it related to regular or biometric data. When each state is left to fend for itself, battling all manner of problems, digital privacy often falls to the wayside and, even when it doesn’t, response to such things is slow. Instead of waiting for all states to catch up, a general decision on the matter is needed. By following the example of Illinois and California on a bigger scale, we can see real change in how companies treat biometric data and take back this area of our digital lives.

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