TikTok is the world’s most popular social media network, born out of the acquisition of Musical.ly in 2018. But how much data does TikTok collect about you as you use it?
TikTok now has more than one billion users across the globe and has become a driving force in the music industry. Digital Music News has documented the app’s rise from obscure karaoke app to social media darling and all the hiccups that have come along the way.
In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined TikTok parent company ByteDance a record $5.7 million for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). COPPA tells companies that it cannot legally collect information about minors under the age of 13 without written permission from their parents. As a result of that privacy lawsuit, TikTok now has a kids-only mode where profiles under the age of 16 are private and that status cannot be changed until the account owner is 18+.
TikTok has also faced renewed scrutiny from the United States government after former President Trump’s attempt to ban TikTok. In 2020, the government of India did follow through with a ban. Now an FCC Commissioner is calling on Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their respective app stores over privacy concerns. Several branches of the United States military have banned service members from using the app on government devices. So what kind of data does TikTok collect about you?
TikTok Data Collection – Here’s What TikTok Knows About You
The app is designed to gather information about you even if you haven’t signed up for a TikTok account. If a friend sends you a TikTok link and you click it, TikTok creates an anonymized data ID that associates that particular video with things like:
- The device you use to access the video
- Your location when accessing the video
- Your IP address when watching the video
- If you searched on the platform
- What new content you viewed
- The app you used right before you viewed TikTok content
So even if you don’t have a TikTok profile, this anonymized shadow ID builds a profile of things you’ve liked. When the TikTok algorithm spots you again, it serves up new recommendations based on your previous watch history. TikTok can infer other data from the content you consume. That includes your age range, gender, interests based on content viewed, and biometric information, including face and voiceprints.
How Does the TikTok Algorithm Work?
What keeps TikTok as the number one app downloaded quarter after quarter is its recommendation algorithm. After you sign up on TikTok and start liking and interacting with content, the algorithm goes to work. Every single person who uses TikTok will have a unique feed. TikTok factors videos you have liked or shared, comments you’ve made, and hashtags and captions you’ve interacted with to determine the content it shows.
The algorithm uses machine learning to understand why you find the content interesting. Each time you interact with TikTok – including actions as basic as how long you watched a single video – a new data point on your metadata profile is created. Based on the content you consume, the algorithm can quickly determine if you’re religious, if you like comedy, if you like sports, music, games, or if you’re passionate about specific political causes.
One of the biggest factors that helps the algorithm determine whether you liked the content or not is how long you spent watching it. Did you watch the whole video? Did you rewatch it? Did you unmute it if it was muted? Do you keep listening to just five seconds of the video over and over? Each of these actions generates data to help the algorithm understand what a user feels about a piece of content.
Can You Stop TikTok Data Collection?
Because TikTok is so heavily focused on the data collection of its users, it’s hard to turn off completely. Denying access to features like location and storage permissions on a device severely limits the TikTok experience. One thing users can do is choose whether personalized ads are turned on or off.
- Tap ‘Me‘ and then go to ‘Settings.’
- Navigate to Privacy > Safety > Personalize.
- Toggle the ‘Data’ feature to be off.
Users can also request TikTok send the data it has collected about them. Here’s how you can see the TikTok data profile the app has built about you.
- Open the TikTok app and go to ‘Profile.’
- Open the ‘Settings.’
- Navigate to Privacy > Personalize > Data.
- Choose ‘Download TikTok data.’