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The clock is ticking for your data on TikTok

TikTok's algorithms are fuelled by data – it's time you know exactly what is going on and take back control. Your data can end up in the hands of third parties, and you have no idea who they might be.

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Today TikTok is one of the most popular apps in the world with more than one billion users. Kids rave about TikTok, even if parents don't understand it. Some amongst an older generation may not even know what TikTok is all about. But for its predominantly young audience, how many of them know what’s happening to all the data they’re sharing?

There are some deep conversations on internet privacy emerging around TikTok, a big debate about whether TikTok is safe to use.

Most users are probably unaware that the organisation behind the app is harvesting their data, and this is inadvertently putting people at risk of digital loss and potential financial harm.

This is particularly alarming when you consider that nearly half of all people on TikTok are aged between 16 and 24 and some are even younger. The very same group is the group most likely to be caught by scammers and have money stolen from their accounts.

So, what does TikTok know about you?

TikTok starts gathering data as soon as you arrive on the site even if you aren't signed up, via cookies and other trackers.

Once you've created an account, the short-video app harvests your personal data collecting information about all your activities and preferences based on the videos you watch.

TikTok knows the device you’re using, your location, IP address, search history, the content of your messages, what you're viewing and for how long. It also collects device identifiers to track your interactions with advertisers. TikTok "infers" factors such as your age range, gender and interests based on the information it has about you.

This data is extremely valuable for TikTok as the information allows advertisers to carefully target people. For example, if someone watches a video until the end and gives it a like, TikTok can serve up tailored ads based on that.

Capturing sentiment with this level of accuracy is incredibly useful and valuable and near impossible using platforms, giving the social media app a huge commercial advantage.

In summary, TikTok collects the following data:

  • The videos you watch and rewatch
  • The videos you comment on
  • The keyboard rhythms you have when you type
  • Your phone and location data
  • Clipboard data
  • Private messages and contacts
  • Any information you share while creating your account
  • Information from linked social media accounts

How does TikTok work?

TikTok's algorithm fuels the app's recommendation system that determines which videos will appear on the 'For You' page. Each person's feed is unique and is based on a consideration of videos you’ve liked or shared and comments you've made; video data such as hashtags and captions; and your device and account settings.

TikTok uses machine learning-based techniques to understand what you view and why. The goal is to keep you on the platform for as long as possible and collect more data about what you've watched. Every time you use the platform, the algorithm is updated with new data so it can understand you more precisely.

TikTok can tell if you find a video funny and why, if you're interested in sports or music, whether you're religious, into politics or concerned about specific causes. It also knows if you've been feeling down lately.

Advertisers crave ways to target specific profiles, and this is their way in

TikTok also takes advantage of every access permission you give it, collecting information about your phone’s model, screen resolution, current OS, phone number, email address, location, and even contact list.

A recent study, published last month by mobile marketing company URL Genius, found that YouTube and TikTok track users' data more than any other social media apps.

What does TikTok do with your data?

The worst part about lack of internet privacy is having a program or website sell your information to a third party. Although TikTok promises not to sell your personal information to third parties, it maintains the right to share the info it gathers within its platform for business purposes. And, the platform doesn't have end-to-end encryption for messages so it's not entirely safe.

Although an app promises it won't share your data, it doesn't mean it'll stick to its word. It's always good to remember that when you choose to share information online, it's out there and you may find it hard to take it back.

It's worth remembering too, that if you sign in to TikTok with Facebook, information can be shared with that social network too.

TikTok is owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, which mostly allows third-party trackers to collect your data, and from there, it's hard to say what happens to it.

With third-party trackers, it's essentially impossible to know who's tracking your data or what information they're collecting, from which posts you interact with, how long you spend on each one, to your physical location and any other person you share with the app.

As the study also noted, third-party trackers can track your activity on other sites even after you leave the app.

What can I do about TikTok sharing my information without my knowledge?

The best way to keep your information private is by limiting what you choose to share in the first place.

  • Turn off personalised ads: Much of the data collection is necessary if you want to enjoy TikTok's full functionality, but some settings allow you to lock it down and turn personalised ads off. To turn Personalised ads on or off, go to ‘Me’ and select ... to open your settings. Then go to Privacy, Safety, Personalise and data and turn the feature to Off.
  • Go Private: TikTok allows you to set your account as private, so only people you approve can follow you and watch your videos. Setting your account to private is an ‘essential first step’, although this will simply guard you against information being shared with others, rather than with TikTok itself.
  • Reduce your digital footprint: Using TikTok regularly increases your digital footprint. On its own, this poses great risks such as being more prone to phishing attacks and stalking. This is an important reason why you should care about your digital footprint. The best way to manage your digital footprint and restrict companies like TikTok from selling on your data is to use Rightly Protect to make a data deletion request. You can manually use the tool to simply ask them to delete any personal information TikTok holds on you. Or whilst you’re there, you can automatically create a list of companies that have your data by scanning your email and then you can pick and choose those companies you don't want to hold your data.
  • Delete your TikTok account: If seeing how TikTok collects data makes you want to delete your account, it's easy to do. All you need to do is go to your profile tab and click the settings icon. Go to ‘Manage My Account’ and click Delete Account. By deleting your account and not using TikTok, you're stopping the app from collecting further data from your activities.

However, this won't erase the previous data you've already shared. To do that, you need to send a request to completely erase all the data the company has on you. Rightly can help you do that with our Rightly Protect tool which works out which companies have your data and enables you to delete it from multiple organisations in a single click and for free.

Hackers and scammers

Over the past few years, security researchers found multiple security vulnerabilities within the app. And since TikTok has access to a lot of personal information, it became a favourite route for many hackers.

One way hackers take advantage of TikTok is by sending users a text message that allows them to access their accounts. Another is leveraging the fact that TikTok uses an insecure HTTP connection to deliver videos. This allows cybercriminals to manipulate users’ feeds and plant unsolicited content that could be misleading or disturbing, especially to young TikTok users.

A final word of warning using TikTok could stand in the way of you working in your chosen field. Take, for example, ones that require a high degree of security, such as high-profile government occupations.

So, if in doubt, choose whether the risk of using TikTok is worth it and where possible limit your digital footprint.