I love Tiktok. Its crazy efficient algorithm always recommends videos I like, leading me to spend hours on end in the app without even realizing it – this is what makes Tiktok stand out from other social media apps, and most importantly, what makes it much more addictive. In most other apps, like Instagram, we see the posts of those we follow; on Tiktok, on the other hand, we check our ‘for you page’, which includes videos tailored to our liking, made by users we might have never known about in apps such as Instagram.
From watching the Social Media Dilemma, I realized that social media apps collect a lot of information about us, their users. Thus, the fact that Tiktok’s algorithm is astronomically superior to other social media apps also means that they have an insane amount of information about its users, and thereby also about me and you. Is being aware of that going to stop me from using the app, though? Probably not. This leads to the next point: the reason tech giants have an insane amount of information on us is because we allow it.
The app states they collect three categories of information: “Information You Provide,” “Automatically Collected Information,” and “Information From Other Sources.” Within the first category, the following is stated: “ We collect the content you create or publish through the Platform, including […] comments, […] and the associated metadata (such as when, where, and by who the content was created).” This means that when you comment on a post, Tiktok is registering whose account you’re commenting on, when they posted, when you’re commenting, where you are, and where they are. On top of that, there’s “automatically collected information” which includes users’ locations. For one’s so-called “approximate location,” the app uses your SIM card and IP address. To do so, it appears that we don’t even need to explicitly state our consent since the policy later states that “with our permission,” they might also collect more precise location information.
Additionally, they “collect information about how you engage with our Services, including information about the content you view, how long and how often you use our Services, how you engage with other users, your search history on the Platform, and your settings.” That means that even if you’re just scrolling through the app, they’ll record information on: how long you stay on a video (so if it’s not for long, they know you don’t like that type of content, and vice-versa), if you like the Tiktok or not, if/when you comment on a Tiktok, who you tag, who you send videos to and how often, how much time you spend on the app, how long you stay on the app once you open it, what you look up on the search bar, amongst others.
If it’s not clear yet, the message is the following: you’re being watched. All. The. Time. Actions that we do unconsciously, like skipping a video we dislike, are carefully watched, recorded, and analyzed by the company.
Now we get to a piece of information that actually made me curse out loud: the app watches and registers your surroundings when you film videos. The policy states they identify objects and scenery, the existence or location that’s in an image of a face or other body parts, and the text of words spoken in the video. From this, they state to infer our attributes, such as age range and gender. Yet, one might expect that they infer much more than that. This would explain how the app gets information for its ‘beauty algorithm’ – which gives each face in videos a rating of attractiveness, and the higher the rating, the higher the chances the algorithm itself will promote that video. If you’ve ever wondered why everyone on your for you page is so pretty, that’s why.
Moreover, the information that Tiktok collects is shared with advertising, measurement, and data partners; its own corporate group, and some third-party platforms (i.e. other tech giants like Google and Facebook, aka Meta). At the same time, Tiktok gets information from those sources as well – which is added to the information that the app itself collects, to create a huge network of data on your profile, who you are, and thus what you’re going to be interested in.
Furthermore, attention must be noted to the phrase “content you create or publish.” This means that they use, not only all the information you share by interacting on public posts or posting videos, but also your personal information, i.e. your drafts. The policy clearly states they collect user content “regardless of whether you choose to save or upload [it].” This shatters the fake perception of privacy of some of the social media’s features – sending a private message doesn’t feel that private when you realize that the app is collecting the content of the message, “the time the message was sent, received and/or read, as well as the participants in the communication”.
So now that you know how much information Tik Tok has about you, the question that follows is: Why do they want all of this data? The short answer is to give us tailored ads and consequently make what most people want in a capitalist society: loads and loads of money. Hence enters the now well-known phrase by Google’s former design ethicist, Tristan Harris: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”
Technically, the app is bound to only use information about its users which it has a legal basis for. However, one of such bases is “legitimate interests (ours, yours, or those of another party)” which likely includes providing the user with personalised ads. For that, they can use all the data they collect, all the time, to constantly bombard you with personalised advertisements. So in the end, those “boundaries” supposed to limit what information they can get about you, and how they’re going to use it, are extremely loose.
Truth is, maybe TikTok doesn’t have MORE information about its users than other social media apps. Perhaps it just uses the information more efficiently, since, in reality, Instagram and Facebook collect all this data as well – which just makes this all scarier. If all these companies do this, they can all share information amongst themselves, creating an enormous network of information about you and me. They can get to know us better than we will ever know ourselves.
While previous societies fought hard to free themselves from the government’s control, modern society, especially Gen Z, willingly gives up an insane amount of personal information to tech giants. And do we really care? Is anyone who reads this article really going to ask Tiktok to delete the information they have about themselves, or stop using the app altogether to protect their privacy? No, and honestly, neither am I, because we enjoy this crazy efficient algorithm that provides us with entertainment for hours on end. ‘Big Brother is watching us’ has never been more true, but no one really cares. Think about it – tech giants can even know what we are thinking by analyzing the data they collect. Think of what you watch says about your political alignment, your sexuality, what and who you dislike, etc. These companies create the illusion that they benefit us by providing us with ‘free’ entertainment when in reality, it’s mostly benefiting them who are getting richer by the second.
We’re all falling for the illusion created by big tech companies that data collection leads to personal benefit. Consequently, we are the ones who allow this dystopia to exist.