All the ways TikTok tracks you and how to stop it

In August 2018, Chinese company ByteDance bought video startup Musical.ly and fused it with another app. The result was TikTok, the wildly popular short video app that’s now one of the most downloaded apps in the world.

Today, the social network has more than one billion users, double that of Snapchat and Twitter combined, with TikTok stars making up to $5 million a year on the platform. Yet TikTok’s rapid rise has also led to regulatory and competitive scrutiny. The app has come under fire for moderation and content issues, as well as its ability to influence through a powerful recommendations algorithm.

Nearly half of all people on TikTok are aged between 16 and 24, and some are even younger. In 2019, the US Federal Trade Commission fined ByteDance $5.7 million for collecting information from under 13s in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, leading to a similar investigation in the UK. TikTok now has a kids-only mode and under 16 profiles are private by default.

TikTok has also faced criticism based on ByteDance’s Chinese origins. In 2020, TikTok was banned by the Indian government, while former US president Donald Trump also moved to outlaw the app – a decision later reversed by president Joe Biden. TikTok denies the Chinese government can access people’s data.

Like Facebook and Instagram, TikTok’s money is made through advertising, which combined with its recommendations algorithm, requires hefty data collection. So what does TikTok know about you, what tracking does it do, and how can this be stopped?

What TikTok knows about you

TikTok can gather information when you arrive on the site even if you aren’t signed up, via cookies and other trackers. Once you’ve created an account, the social network collects data about your activities and preferences based on the videos you watch.

TikTok knows the device you are using, your location, IP address, search history, the content of your messages, what you’re viewing and for how long. It also collects device identifiers to track your interactions with advertisers. TikTok “infers” factors such as your age range, gender and interests based on the information it has about you. In the US, TikTok can collect biometric information including face and voiceprints.

This data is “extremely valuable” for TikTok and its advertisers, says Morgan Wright, chief security advisor at security company SentinelOne. “If someone watches a video until the end and gives it a like, TikTok can serve up tailored ads based on that. Capturing sentiment with this level of accuracy is harder on other platforms.”

How TikTok tracks you

On the one hand, TikTok’s privacy policy is quite clear. When you sign up, TikTok asks for your email address or phone number and date of birth. It also collects the content you create even if you don’t end up uploading or saving it, and the associated metadata – the when, where and who. If you sign in with Facebook, information can be shared with the social network too.

TikTok says it collects text, images and video from your device’s clipboard if you copy and paste content to or from the app, or share it with a third-party platform.