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Social Media Surveillance - What TikTok Knows About You

Posted on June 27, 2023 by John Ross


TikTok is one of the most popular apps in the world today, and it owes much of its success to its proprietary algorithm that keeps users engaged with the platform. In order to do this, the app not only keeps track of key engagement indicators, but also collects much more invasive information that many users aren't aware of.

A Brief Overview of TikTok (although you probably don't need it)

TikTok is a social media platform by Chinese internet technology company ByteDance and was launched in September 2016. The video sharing platform allows users to create and upload videos of up to one minute, and engage with other community members through follows, reactions, comments, and direct messages. Since its launch, it has embarked on an incredibly successful journey; aggregating a user base of more than 2 billion and usurping Google as the most popular website in the world [3][7]. The app's incredible growth is largely due to its "For You" page, which is personally customized to your interests based on a sophisticated machine learning algorithm and key indicators from users' interaction with the app [6].

Although many apps use similar algorithms, TikTok's seems to be by in large the most effective, even implementing a pop-up after 90 minutes of use suggesting that users take a break [8]. The addictive quality of the app is well documented in scientific literature; a recent paper used fMRI scans to study the neurological effects of TikTok and found that the personally recommended videos modulated brain activity and could manifest "addiction-like undesired behaviors" [9].

While the tailored content is a result of its sophisticated algorithm, it is also the result of the data that the app collects in order to feed in to the algorithm. Next, we'll dive into what personal data TikTok collects from its users.

What Data Does TikTok Collect

Data collection is imperative to the TikTok business model; it is how the platform understands what keeps you engaged. As the app is closed source, evaluating the exact details of its data collection methods can be a challenging task, and requires extensive black-box testing. Below is a comprehensive list of what we understand TikTok collects, based on various reports and investigations:

A white paper by Canberra-based cybersecurity and intelligence firm Internet 2.0 also provided a list of what information TikTik can gain access to on Android devices

Not only does this list paint a very clear picture of the invasive nature of TikTok, an equally disturbing aspect is how this data is distributed. The app by far allows the most third party tracking of any social media app tested [11]. Moreover, the app and its parent company ByteDance have strong ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CPP), which we will explore in further detail in the next section.

The Political Context

So the question you may be asking yourself is: what makes this so different? If you have already read our post about WhatsApp, the concept of big tech being invasive should not be a new concept. In this new digital age, TikTok is one of many companies capitalizing on personal data for ad revenue. Unfortunately, a big issue relies on the parties involved behind the app.

It is well known that American tech giants Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and Apple (amongst many others) participated in the NSA's PRISM program; allowing the government direct access to their servers [11]. However, ByteDance is a Chinese company, and would have no allegiance to the NSA or the US government. Although Theo Bertram, TikTok's head of public policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said it would refuse any request from China to hand over data [3], many have disputed this claim. ByteDance would fall under the 2017 National Security Law in China that compels any organisation or citizen to "support, assist and co-operate with the state intelligence work" in accordance with the law [2]. Additionally, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) noted that both Tencent and ByteDance, the companies that own and operate WeChat and TikTok, respectively, are subject to China’s security, intelligence, counter-espionage and cyber security laws [5].

With this, it is important to emphasize what a big aspect of the political discourse on TikTok is about; in the eyes of the US government, it's not an issue that they collect data on their citizens, it's an issue of who gets access to it. This is the basis of a potential ban within the United States.

Another big concern from app users and government agencies are the political agendas of the platform. According to an ASPI report, internal CPP committees are place at both ByteDance and Tencent, and they ensure that the party’s political goals are pursued alongside the companies’ commercial goals [5]. Furthermore, former ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming has stated on the record that he will ensure his products serve to promote the CCP’s propaganda agenda [5] and that the technology needs to be guided by “core socialist values” [4].

Currently, TikTok is fully banned in India and Afghanistan, banned on government devices in the U.K., Taiwan, Canada, and America, and partially banned on government devices in Australia, New Zealand, and many European countries. [1]

Final Thoughts

This article listed many reasons why users should be wary of TikTok, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you have to delete it. If you are concerned about TikTok's invasive data collection policies, please take a closer look at the terms and services, use bowser plugins or smartphone applications that can help limit data collection, and use a VPN. Please be aware of your screen time. The algorithm is addictive to an unprecedented degree, and it is important to be aware of how it affects your everyday life as well as your long term cognitive health. Please stay up to date with your local government's policies; not only with respect to TikTok, but to data collection as a whole. In many Western countries, it seems as though a ban on the platform is imminent, though nothing is guaranteed.

More than anything, just be aware that TikTok is engaging with you just as much as you are engaging with it.

Go Back Home


[1] - CBC News - What does TikTok know about you? What should you know about it?
[2] - BBC News - TikTok: What is the app and how much data does it collect?
[3] - BBC News - TikTok: We are not 'under the thumb' of China
[4] - Financial Review - TikTok’s ‘alarming’, ‘excessive’ data collection revealed
[5] - Financial Review - 'Powerful political actor': TikTok censoring content, report finds
[6] - How-To Geek - Why Is TikTok So Popular? Why the Social Network Is Unique
[7] - NBC News - TikTok surpasses Google as most popular website of the year, new data suggests
[8] - Make Use Of - What Is TikTok and How Does It Work?
[9] - Viewing personalized video clips recommended by TikTok activates default mode network and ventral tegmental area
[10] - REVIEWS.ORG - What Data Does TikTok Collect?
[11] - Yahoo News - How Google and Facebook Cooperated with the NSA and PRISM