A new report published following an investigation by Consumer Reports revealed that the Chinese social network TikTok uses specific mechanisms that allow it to track the behavior of its users on the web, their consumption, and interests even when the person is not using the application.
According to the investigation, the platform uses such information theft techniques in all the countries where it is active. The trackers are known as “pixels” and are deposited in millions of web pages and applications to record certain user information, which is then transferred directly to TikTok.
TikTok then uses this information to target ads to potential customers and measure their reach.
Consumer Reports asked security firm Disconnect to scan 2,000 websites for TikTok pixels to reach this conclusion.
Another troubling finding the investigation yielded is that some of the largest sites reporting these pixels had domains ending in “.org,” “.edu,” and “.gov,” many of which deal with sensitive information.
“If you go to the United Methodist Church’s main website, TikTok hears about it. Interested in joining Weight Watchers? TikTok finds that out, too,” the report reads in an attempt to chart just how advanced the system used by the Chinese platform is.
Even firms such as the abortion company Planned Parenthood use these pixels that tell TikTok about the people who visited their website so that the platform can send advertising related to this industry.
What does TikTok do with the information obtained?
The report explains that pixels and other trackers (such as online cookies) are particularly useful in advertising. So any company that owns a website can use these types of trackers to monitor who visits their site and then report back to companies like TikTok to target associated advertisements to that person.
Melanie Bosselait, a spokesperson for TikTok, acknowledged that the company uses this mechanism to collect data, which is supposedly “used to improve the effectiveness of our advertising services.” However, she also defended herself by claiming that “other platforms” do it the same way.
It is partly true. Other platforms and social networks, such as Facebook and Google, are accused of using similar mechanisms. As a result, the U.S. justice system is investigating how they collect, store and use their users’ information.
According to TikTok’s terms and conditions, it claims that its advertising customers cannot send certain types of confidential information, such as data about children, health conditions, or personal finances.
But the reality shows that there is no reliable method for consumers or privacy researchers to verify that such claims are valid and that the flow of information is well regulated.
Disconnect’s research reports, for example, that TikTok obtains medical information from WebMD, where one pixel reported that they had searched on “erectile dysfunction.”
Another controversial example is Recovery Centers of America, a significant addiction treatment facility, which notifies TikTok when a visitor views its locations or reads about insurance coverage.
Disconnect also suggested that many companies are often unaware of the amount and type of information they provide from customer visits to their websites.
The report mentions the case of RAINN, a leading anti-sexual violence organization with TikTok pixels. According to an organization representative, this could only be a mistake made after upgrading their systems, but it was not intentional.
As the research concludes, circumventing these trackers is extremely difficult, and the only solution to this invasion of users’ privacy should be to limit the mechanism using the “law.”
Connection between TikTok and the Chinese communist regime
As mentioned above, although it is true that other companies use similar mechanisms to those of TikTok, the aggravating factor for this social network is that all the information it may acquire will reach the Chinese communist regime. The parent company, ByteDance, is based in Beijing and its close ties with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are well known.
The CCP, which is in the midst of a fierce trade war with the West and on the verge of a real confrontation with some of the world powers such as the United States, has shown in its own country that it has no qualms about using people’s private information to achieve its goals.
In this regard, a Forbes report shows that at least 300 employees of ByteDance also work as journalists for official CCP media. For years ByteDance has been accused of being used for espionage purposes by the CCP.
This investigation reviewed the Linkedin profiles of TikTok employees, discovering the connection between jobs on the Chinese social network and news agencies that report to the CCP, which infers the use of this entire CCP propaganda apparatus to manipulate information in their favor.
TikTok has more than one billion users worldwide, and several countries have declared their concerns regarding the security of user data.
In June, an investigation published in various media outlets reported through 80 leaked audios of internal TikTok meetings that the CCP accesses U.S. user data at will.
In 2020, then-President Donald Trump attempted to ban TikTok in the U.S. or force a merger with aU.S.. company to allow for greater regulation over the handling of private data.
Current President Joe BideU.S.gned an executive order onU.S.e 9, 2021, reversing former President Trump’s ban. While the matter currently remains in court, in the meantime, the app continues to operate normally.
All these reasons prove how the CCP somehow manages to penetrate the West. TikTok has been identified as a “Trojan horse” that the Chinese regime uses to influence Americans through what they see, hear, and think.