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Legal Mom Column: TikTok and privacy do not go hand in hand

TikTok, one of the fastest-growing social networks among children under the age of 16, has recently come under fire for violating privacy laws. Read on as Legal Mom Marisa and Marcin shed some light on the legal issues surrounding the use of this app and what you as parents can do to prevent your children from being affected.

Co-authors: Marisa Monteiro Borsboom and Marcin Wrzesiński

Do your kids use TikTok?

Looking at social media trends from the last two years, one word comes to mind: TikTok. It’s a video-sharing social network full of users producing comedy clips, lip-syncing videos, and all-around engaging content. Unsurprisingly, TikTok gained massive popularity among children under the age of 16 and is the fastest-growing social network, boasting over 1.5 billion downloads to date and outperforming Facebook and Instagram.[1]

TikTok has certainly grabbed the attention of Generation Z and is already a key player having an influence on the future of social media. For the most part, TikTok is regarded as a relatively pleasant app with fewer trolls compared to Facebook or Instagram. There are, however, serious legal concerns related to privacy and transparency. Since the app is most popular among children and teenagers–parents should take notice.

Growing privacy concerns

Last week, TikTok settled a lawsuit in a US court just one day after it was filed.[2] The Chinese  company agreed to pay $1.1 million to a group of parents that claimed, rightfully so, that TikTok collected and exposed data of children under the age of 13. According to US and EU law[3], companies need parental consent to collect data from said age group and TikTok failed to adhere to this requirement. (TikTok predecessor; acquired by TikTok in 2017) requested that anyone under the age of 13 creating an account must provide personal information–name, phone number, email address, photo, and bio. This information would be publicly available for other users to see. The group of parents also claimed that TikTok collected the user’s location.

It’s worth mentioning that it is not the first time TikTok was in trouble for violations of privacy laws. Earlier this year, the company settled another lawsuit for $5.7 million.[4]

Why should we bother?

Why should we bother? Well, except for the fact that your child can be directly contacted by predators and scammers, companies dealing with large amounts of data are notorious for analysing it and selling for marketing purposes. They create customer profiles through tracking user’s browsing history, collecting location and analysing preferences.

Earlier this month, a California-based student filed a lawsuit against TikTok, claiming that the app automatically uploaded data from her phone to servers located in China. What’s even more interesting, the claimant downloaded the app but never registered. The app created an account for her.[5]

TikTok is under more and more pressure from the US government and the public is beginning to criticize the platform. This week, the company’s CEO was supposed to be interviewed by several US senators, but the meeting was cancelled.[6]

Eberl’s analysis exposes further breaches of protection

Earlier this month, German privacy journalist Matthias Eberl shared a detailed analysis of TikTok’s privacy practices. This analysis exposed several breaches of data protection law, trust, and transparency. Evidence showed that user’s search terms, device information and other detailed usage data was being directly provided to Facebook and other partners. Users never consent to this type of processing, and it is very difficult to classify it as ‘legitimate interest’. TikTok is very likely to be in breach of articles 14 and 26 of the General Data Protection Regulation.

Matthias Eberl also exposed that TikTok collects user’s fingerprints and audio fingerprints, which are internally generated audio. TikTok’s purposes for collecting and processing this kind of data are not plausible–identifying malicious browser behaviour. The detailed article by Eberl can be found here.

What can be done?

What can be done in this situation? Multi-million court settlements are just a slap on the wrist for a company that is valued at $75 billion. As a civil society, we can and must spread awareness and educate people. We need to encourage parents to do more research about what their children are doing online. Technology is growing at an extremely rapid pace. Given the amounts of money and power at stake, tech giants are working tirelessly to improve their market presence. The law is not often fast enough to catch up with the technological advancements before harm is done. What we need is digital literacy and awareness (you can start here, for instance). You can start by sharing this article. Information is our power and our best defense!

Want to read more posts by Legal Mom? Check out her post about Child Safety Online and the caveats of  using “free” legal advice in the Netherlands. Want to know more about the woman behind Legal Mom? Read the first post here.

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