ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, insists they’ve never gathered more data on users than their bigger rivals Facebook and Google did.
The wildly popular short video app TikTok is alleged to have tracked user data using a special tactic prohibited by Google, borrowing users’ information and not allowing them to reconsider and opt out, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported.
An exceptionally heavy encryption layer, according to experts in the field, permitted TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance, to execute the practice, which the app reportedly ditched in November.
The said identifiers, 12-digit codes called MAC addresses, went against Google’s policies on how information can be tracked and stored, according to the WSJ.
The addresses are believed to come in handy in terms of advertising as they cannot technically be altered or reset – something that would allow third-party apps to build consumer behaviour profiles based on them, going around any privacy measures except for the user getting a new phone.
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), cited by the WSJ, MAC addresses fall into the category of personally identifiable information under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
The new revelations come as TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, are under heavy scrutiny in the US over national security concerns, with the White House eyeing the highly plausible prospect of the app being sold to an American tech giant, namely Microsoft Corp, thereby solidifying its position on the social media market.
Washington insists such a transaction must be completed by 15 September or otherwise the popular video-sharing app used by around 100 million users in the US could be banned in the country.
Trump initially announced he would ban TikTok’s Chinese umbrella company from operating in the US over fears that private data could be harvested through the app at Beijing’s behest, something that China outright denied. The Chinese envoy to the US, Cui Tiankai, insisted that forcing TikTok to sell to Microsoft violated US free market principles. Beijing, for its part, warned the US of “consequences” if it opens “Pandora’s Box” with what a Chinese official called “political manipulation” and a crackdown on a Chinese company.
TikTok’s firm position, set out earlier this year, is that it still collects less data than US companies like Facebook or Google, which are now mired in a row over alleged monopoly rights abuse. In a statement, a spokesperson said the company is “committed to protecting the privacy and safety of the TikTok community. Like our peers, we constantly update our app to keep up with evolving security challenges”. The firm said “the current version of TikTok does not collect MAC addresses”.
Donald Trump’s last-minute decision to allow Microsoft to purchase the Chinese app was believed to have been triggered by talks with fellow Republicans and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Meanwhile, Microsoft personnel are reportedly strongly against it, viewing the prospective deal as completely “unethical”.
“A very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States, because we’re making [the deal] possible”, Trump pointed out regarding the arrangement, sparking a debate about what was taken as a mafia-style deal, in which a commission would go to those who facilitated it.
The key task on Microsoft’s part would now reportedly be separating TikTok’s technology from ByteDance’s infrastructure, so as to ease Washington’s concerns about the integrity of personal data.