A college student from Palo Alto, California is suing video-sharing service TikTok for allegedly using surveillance software designed to harvest personally identifiable information, including biometric data, and send it to China for reasons other than advertising.
TikTok, a fast-growing social media app with 1.5 billion users globally, allows users to create short music and lip-sync videos as well as short looping videos akin to the Boomerang app. However, “TikTok’s lighthearted fun comes at a heavy cost,” according to the class action papers filed in a court in the Northern District of California last week.
“Unknown to its users, however, is that TikTok also includes Chinese surveillance software,” the suit alleges. “TikTok clandestinely has vacuumed up and transferred to servers in China vast quantities of private and personally-identifiable user data that can be employed to identify, profile and track the location and activities of users in the United States now and in the future.”
The app also surreptitiously transfers draft videos never intended for publication, without user knowledge or consent, according to the plaintiff, Misty Hong.
Hong’s lawyers allege that TikTok harvests troves of personal information before its users even save or share their videos, including phone and social network contacts, email addresses, IP address, and location data. More worryingly, TikTok has access to biometric user data, since it records users’ faces. However, TikTok prevents users from knowing that it has taken their private videos and biometric Identifiers, according to the suit.
Once TikTok users click the “next” button, but before they click the “save” or “post” buttons, their videos are allegedly transferred to domains owned by TikTok in China.
Interestingly, Hong also alleges that she installed the TikTok app but never created an account. However, the suit claims, TikTok created one for her anyway. Citing various unverified sources, Hong alleges that TikTok secretly “transfers private and personally-identifiable user data to China where, under Chinese law, it is subject to collection and use by the Chinese government for criminal investigations, the stifling of political dissent, surveillance, and other purposes.
Citing violations of the Right to Privacy under the California Constitution, the suit invites others who are “similarly positioned” to join the fight against TikTok’s aggressive collection of personal data.