According to a report published by Consumer Reports, ByteDance uses many of Google and Meta’s tactics to track online activity and collect user data, even when users don’t have the TikTok app installed.
Run by ByteDance, a Chinese company suspected of close ties to the Chinese Communist Party, TikTok is increasingly investing in developing partnerships with third-party advertising companies, aiming to diversify its data collection by adding sources outside the social media platform. That’s how ByteDance has likely come to hold detailed information about people who don’t even have a TikTok account.
According to Consumer Reports, the strategy relies on including “invisible pixels” on websites with which TikTok partners already have advertising links. Essentially, these are images or graphical elements with no visual role on the sites in question, used simply to collect as much information as possible from the generated views. The practice, which is widely used, helps advertisers identify potential customers by tracking their interactions with various products or topics of interest on visited websites.
In the case of TikTok, the tracking network covers at least 20,000 sites worldwide, including those with “.org”, “.edu” and “.gov” addresses, usually associated with government organisations/institutions, collecting information on sensitive topics. While there is no direct evidence for this, it is easy to anticipate how this data could be useful to China’s intelligence agencies.
Officially, TikTok uses data collected from outside the network to maximize the efficiency of the algorithms that serve viral clips in your feed. So even if you’ve never used TikTok before, chances are good that on your first visit to the app’s feed you’ll discover content relevant to your interests, documented in advance using external trackers:
“Like other platforms, the data we receive from advertisers is used to improve the effectiveness of our advertising services,” says Melanie Bosselait, TikTok spokesperson. The data “is not used to group people into certain interest categories to target other advertisers.” If TikTok receives data about someone who doesn’t have a TikTok account, the company only uses that data for aggregate reports they send to advertisers about their sites, she says.
According to the analysis requested from security company Disconnect, the data sent to TikTok can include your IP address, the unique ID number of the device you’re using, the page you’re on and the clicks you’ve made, down to search terms and text you enter. The availability of certain information may vary depending on how the website has been configured.