TikTok Under Investigation Over Alleged Transfer of Personal Data to China

Published · Sep 17, 2021

Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) is launching an investigation into TikTok. The commission is worried that the service may be sending user data to China and has concerns over child safety on the platform.

The DPC leads the EU’s regulation into the company and will be launching two inquiries.

One will consider transfers of user data by TikTok to China.

The other will look at TikTok’s compliance with EU data regulations for under-18s and age verification measures for under-13s.

This isn’t the first time world governments have been suspicious of TikTok. The Trump administration described the app as a national security risk.

Тhe Biden administration reversed steps to ban the app from the US. However, it is still concerned about US citizen’s data falling into the hands of “foreign adversaries.” The US government noted that an investigation into TikTok launched in 2019 is ongoing.

ByteDance consistently disputes claims that it’s sending user data to China. It maintains that it intends to cooperate with the DPC and that it follows GDPR guidelines to safeguard user data.

That’s a Lot of Data

Analysts estimate that TikTok has roughly 200 million users in the United States and Europe. Once these users agree to the terms of service and begin using it, the app gains access to a considerable amount of data.

This includes metadata, such as information about the user’s device, a lot of what’s happening on it, and even their location. Once it’s handed over, there’s little guarantee that it can be purged through normal personal data removal methods.

But there’s another type of information the app collects—biometric data. When people use the ever-popular filters, TikTok scans their faces to build a framework on which to overlay the effects. The app essentially collects facial prints.

The Chinese brand of TikTok, Douyin—the same app for Chinese territory—uses these facial prints for a people search tool.

Douyin subscribers can use someone’s face to find videos featuring them. Targeted searches inside the app may make some uncomfortable, but the possible implications are much greater.

If a foreign power gets access to vast swaths of data attached to facial prints, they can build background check databases on entire populations outside of their territory. People search engines are yet to use such tech but it is maybe a matter of time.

There’s no concrete evidence that ByteDance is sending data of this kind to China, but Western powers are concerned. These investigations are the first step in what could be a long process.

Garan van Rensburg
Garan van Rensburg

Garan is a writer interested in how tech reshapes the environment, and how the environment reshapes tech. You'll usually find him inoculating against future shock and arguing with bots.