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As recently as November, the app TikTok was keeping stock of their users by using illegal tracking information on all their users.

Did TikTok boost its stock price by using banned data tracking?

TikTok has been a hot topic as of late. The U.S. government has been taking a harder stance when it comes to China & policy for a little while now, but the Trump administration has been drawing even harder lines in the sand over the past few months as tensions appear to grow between the countries.

While TikTok is not the only target of these tenuous political relations, it is the one which has been garnering the most headlines. TikTok has become a wildly popular platform with a huge portion of gen z using the app for everything from political activism to sharing dance moves.

Teens and young adults understandably don’t want to see their favorite app get banned, but the window of time TikTok has to get purchased by a U.S. based company is rapidly closing. Meanwhile, it looks like the security concerns about TikTok may not have been unfounded.

Collecting data

The main argument the U.S. has regarding the ban of TikTok is that it has been collecting user data and using it for their own gain – some have even posited the idea the app may share information with the Chinese government. Many people were unfazed by this claim saying most other apps collect data too.

However, apps are required to tell you what data they’re collecting, and ask for permissions – you can’t use an app unless you hit “accept”. TikTok, on the other hand, was apparently collecting data on users without letting them know some of the information they were gathering.

Tracking users

Until November of last year, when the U.S. first started becoming more scrutinous of Chinese technology, TikTok was collecting users’ MAC addresses. This unique identifier is assigned to one internet connected device. Collecting MAC addresses is banned by Google’s terms of service.

The reason is that since a MAC address is unique to each individual device it allows those with MAC addresses to specifically track individuals. This allows for profiling users’ by looking at their personal data & search history, as well as targeting them with ads.

Even people who clear their search history, delete their cookies, and go deep into TikTok’s settings to delete information would still have all of their information attached to them – just stock-piles of information you thought you had deleted.

How they did it

TikTok apparently was able to collect MAC addresses on Android users by finding a bug in the code of Android phones. They took advantage of the coding flaw and it allowed them to collect the information without anyone’s knowledge until quite a bit after the fact.

According to TechCrunch Google still has not patched this bug despite being fully aware of it. Furthermore, MAC addresses are actually considered personally identifiable information under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which makes it illegal to collect – especially since TikTok has so many underage users.

When asked about the breach of Google rules and the collection of MAC addresses without users’ knowledge a spokesperson for TikTok said this: 

“Under the leadership of our Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) Roland Cloutier,  who has decades of experience in law enforcement and the financial services industry, we are committed to protecting the privacy and safety of the TikTok community. We constantly update our app to keep up with evolving security challenges, and the current version of TikTok does not collect MAC addresses. We have never given any TikTok user data to the Chinese government nor would we do so if asked.”

Breaking down the statement

Technically the statement doesn’t deny having collected MAC addresses in the past – it only denies doing it with the current version of the app. If you’re the kind of person who prefers to update apps manually instead of automatically, you may want to double check your TikTok app is up to date.

The other problem with the statement is their claim TikTok would never provide the Chinese government any information if asked. TikTok is owned by the China-based company ByteDance, and China has a law requiring companies to provide information to the government when requested.

TikTok likely wouldn’t have any choice in the matter if the Chinese government demanded information on users of TikTok – and they likely wouldn’t have to notify users of this either.

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