Is TikTok monitoring your physical location?

TikTok is a short-from video sharing app that has grown rapidly in popularity over the past few years, gathering some 150 million American users since its launch in 2017. A recent article by Forbes however, discovered the social media app’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, planned to use the app to monitor the location of its US users. It’s still unclear whether the data was actually collected, however these findings raise larger issues of data privacy on social media platforms, where many users remain unaware of the collection and use of personal data that is being obtained through these apps. 

Maureen Shanahan, a spokesperson for TikTok, stated the app collects location information from users’ IP addresses to “among other things, help show relevant content and ads to users, comply with applicable laws, and detect and prevent fraud and inauthentic behavior.” However, materials obtained from ByteDance’s Internal Audit team showed the company was planning to use the location data for more reasons than what was stated above. This is not the first time a large tech company has encountered issues surrounding unethical uses of location data in the US either. Uber and Facebook are examples of apps that have reportedly tracked the location of users on their apps, including the whereabouts of journalists reporting on Facebook’s platform. 

Since November, more than two dozen states have banned the use of TikTok on government devices, with many universities beginning or preparing to block the app from campus Wi-Fi networks. This issue continues to beg the question of whose responsibility it is to safeguard online data privacy. Social media users – which account for about 90 percent of the entire US population –  are increasingly being forced to decide between the opportunities and connections that social media platforms enable and the possibility of data misuse. 

TikTok is now close to signing a contract with the Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS), which will evaluate national security concerns with the app and investigate whether personal user information is at risk of being accessed by China’s government. Spokespeople from TikTok have remained quiet about the company’s negotiations with CFIUS, but have announced they are “confident that we are on a path to fully satisfy all reasonable U.S. national security concerns.”

The EthicalGEO Initiative’s Locus Charter aims to provide a universal charter of principles to ensure the ethical and responsible use of location data, for a safer society both off- and online. Check out the 10 Principles here, and spread the word about supporting the Locus Charter.