New details of TikTok’s alleged surveillance of its users are emerging, including the China-founded app reportedly keeping a list of people who watch gay content and spying on a reporter through an account created for her cat.
TikTok maintained a list of users who watched lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender content, which was accessible to the company’s employees for at least a year, former employees told the Wall Street Journal.
The unnamed employees said their colleagues in China had access to the list’s data and previously controlled who could use a dashboard to view the information about users watching information categorized as LGBT.
Tech platforms tracking users’ behavior and inferring their preferences is a way for companies to select content and ads to show users online.
Some of TikTok’s workers, however, feared the data their company collected could be used for blackmail and said viewers of gay content were not the only topics tracked in TikTok’s data, according to the Journal.
Asked about its tracking and use of the data, TikTok said it takes privacy seriously.
“Safeguarding the privacy and security of people who use TikTok is one of our top priorities,” TikTok spokesperson Jason Grosse said Monday in an email. “TikTok does not identify individuals or infer sensitive information such as sexual orientation or race based on what they watch.”
TikTok told the Journal the dashboard used by employees was deleted in the U.S. about one year ago.
China’s policies of military-civil fusion have sparked concerns about TikTok among U.S. policymakers who fear Americans’ data may be vulnerable to the communist government via the app’s China founded-parent company, ByteDance.
ByteDance has previously acknowledged it fired four employees who accessed data on journalists from the now-defunct BuzzFeed News and The Financial Times.
The Financial Times’ Cristina Criddle detailed in an article on Friday her experience in discovering the spying, saying she learned of the snooping in December from a TikTok public relations worker.
Ms. Criddle wrote that TikTok snooped on her via an account she created for her cat, Buffy, which she developed to test TikTok’s features.
“Though I was unaware of it, at the same time TikTok was pushing back on reports of a toxic workplace, several employees had decided to surveil my phone, tracking my location in hopes of finding my sources,” Ms. Criddle wrote.
TikTok previously challenged news of its interest in monitoring people’s physical locations before acknowledging it collected Americans’ location information during a congressional hearing in March.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that earlier versions of the app collected precise GPS information from users and that TikTok may still be gathering such info from a small percentage of users who use an outdated version of the app.
Data on what people watch and where they are is not the only personal information TikTok’s minders are tracking. A ByteDance-operated tool by staff inside China tracked mentions of sensitive words and then recorded who said it and where they were located including for people inside the U.S., according to Forbes.
While details about the content-tracking tool remain scarce, Forbes reported that ByteDance’s glossary of sensitive words includes such things as China, former President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A TikTok spokesperson told Forbes the information about the tool it reviewed could be outdated and incomplete, and said different content policies and computer code apply to ByteDance products TikTok and Douyin, a version of TikTok available inside China.
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.