WSJ: TikTok Exploits Google Privacy Loophole to Track Users Online

August 12th, 2020 3:10 PM

New information came to light about TikTok’s aggressive data collection just days after President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning the app in the United States. 

The Wall Street Journal released a report on August 11 detailing how TikTok was able to collect user data by exploiting a privacy loophole in Google’s android system. This loophole enabled the app to track users online without allowing them to opt out. 

Despite numerous accusations to the contrary, TikTok claimed the platform “doesn’t share data with the Chinese government and wouldn’t do so if asked,” according to the report. 

The reason TikTok was able to collect this data is by tracking a “media access control” or “MAC” address. The report explained that these numbers are found in every internet-ready device and “are most commonly used for advertising purposes.” Apple reportedly blocked third-parties from accessing MAC addresses in 2013, and the Google Android system did the same in 2015. However, the Android system reportedly still contained a loophole that TikTok was able to exploit, violating Google’s rules for developers. 

The Journal noted that “The Federal Trade Commission has said MAC addresses are considered personally identifiable information under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.”  This Act prohibits companies from collecting the data of children under the age of 13 online.

 TikTok ended its practice in November after increased scrutiny from Washington D.C., according to The Journal’s findings.

The report quoted Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) as stating, “Google needs to mind its store, and TikTok shouldn’t be on it. If Google is telling users they won’t be tracked without their consent and knowingly allows apps like TikTok to break its rules by collecting persistent identifiers, potentially in violation of our children’s privacy laws, they’ve got some explaining to do.”

After the report was released, Sen. Hawley’s press office tweeted: “TikTok skirted a privacy safeguard in Google’s Android OS to collect unique identifiers from millions of mobile devices, data that allows them to track users online without allowing them to opt out. Sen. Hawley is calling for Google to ban @tiktok_us from its platform.”

Hawley has been intensely critical of TikTok, prompting him to propose legislation that passed in the Senate last week that would ban the app from phones issued to government employees. The U.S Military banned the app from government issued-devices in December 2019.  

Conservatives are under attack. Contact your representative and demand that TikTok provide transparency: Companies need to design open systems so that they can be held accountable, while giving weight to privacy concerns. If you have been censored, contact us at the Media Research Center contact form, and help us hold Big Tech accountable.