Documents from internal company meetings show that the Chinese application is less strict with its western users’ personal data than it claims.
The TikTok application has been in turmoil since 80 audio recordings recorded during internal exchanges and analyzed by the American site Buzzfeed were discovered.
These documents revealed that China-based engineers of the application had access to American users’ personal data. The listenings mentioned are from September 2021 to January 2022. However, the application claims in its official speeches that this is not the case.
• What is Tiktok?
TikTok is a social network by the Chinese company Bytedance. It was launched in 2016 in the form of a music and dance application. From now on, TikTok is primarily a video application that lasts from a few seconds to ten minutes.
The peculiarity of the social network consists in infinitely linking the videos through an efficient and dynamic algorithm. In the summer of 2021, TikTok passed the milestone of one billion monthly active users. Thanks to its particularly addictive nature, TikTok is the social network where users spend most of their time.
• What personal data does TikTok collect?
Like most social networks, TikTok collects data about its users. This information is intended to feed the sponsored content on which the economic model of the application is based. This data includes basic information such as the user’s identifier, email address or age, which is valuable for the distribution of targeted advertising.
Like Facebook or Google, TikTok also has a tool made available to millions of websites to track all the websites visited by its users in order to better understand their preferences and habits, for example. This data, in turn, is essential in order to be able to offer tailored advertising.
According to the internal documents mentioned by Buzzfeed, TikTok’s Chinese engineers were able to access other elements such as: B. the comments written under the videos, the videos “liked” or the accounts followed by each user.
• Where does TikTok claim to keep this data?
Since its strong international popularity, TikTok has always shown its references to the police for personal data, claiming that its users’ data is not transferred to China in any way and that it is stored in the United States and in Singapore.
The app still faced lockdown threats from former US President Donald Trump, but that didn’t materialize. The sanctions risk was eventually buried by current President Joe Biden.
For European users, TikTok has promised to launch a dedicated server in Ireland in 2020. If this promise has not had any effect since then, the applicant does not confirm his desire to set up these servers again until April. European user data is now stored in the USA and Singapore.
BFMTV has asked TikTok to find out if the company commits to ensuring that data linked to French users is not pulled from China. A commitment TikTok doesn’t make, which ensures a “limited” number of employees (including Chinese) can access it.
• What do TikTok’s internal taps reveal?
The audio documents contain 14 claims from nine different TikTok employees, according to Buzzfeed, which suggest engineers in China had access to US users’ personal data “at least” between September 2021 and January 2022.
In particular, we learn that certain information is not stored on Oracle’s American servers (TikTok’s storage partner) as announced, but on other TikTok servers in the US state of Virginia. If this data is geographically hosted in the United States, the fact that the servers belong to TikTok puts the company in control.
“Physical location doesn’t matter if the data can still be viewed in China,” Adam Segal, director of digital and cyberspace at the US Council on Foreign Relations, told Buzzfeed.
In addition, the testimonies disclosed in the internal documents are quite unequivocal. “Everything is seen in China,” a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety Committee said during a September 2021 meeting.
“Despite an October 2021 affidavit by a company executive that a ‘world-renowned U.S. security team’ would decide who has access to the data, nine allegations by eight employees describe situations where American employees had to turn to their colleagues in China to understand how American data was handled,” Buzzfeed said.
• What is the risk for users?
The main point of criticism of the application is the – always denied – proximity to the Chinese Communist Party. Of course, the transmission of Western users’ personal data to the Chinese authorities raises the possibility of espionage.
As a reminder, the main Chinese companies related to new technologies are united in a federation, which means full support of the existing power.
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