An investigation by The Wall Street Journal finds that the popular video-streaming app TikTok compiled a list of users who were being monitored after watching gay-themed content on the app.
According to former company employees in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, TikTok compiled a list of users who watched clips tagged as “LGBT” and stored it on a dashboard.
Lists were also compiled for users who perused videos dealing with other topics, but the employees didn’t believe that those lists raised the same level of concern for users’ safety and privacy.
The former employees, who objected to the policy, were worried that the users’ information would be shared with outside parties or could be potentially used to blackmail users.
They brought their concerns to top executives at the company in 2020 and 2021.
Typically, many social media companies compile data on users based on their online behavior, with the intention of using it to select content or advertisements that a user might be interested in seeing while using the app.
But best practices among social media companies generally discourage tracking traits such as sexuality, especially in parts of the world where homosexuality is criminalized or where LGBTQ people can be harassed or assaulted for their identities.
Last year, the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD urged tech companies to take greater steps to safeguard user data and privacy, including stopping targeted surveillance advertising, over concerns that such information could harm LGBTQ people if it fell into the wrong hands.
According to the former TikTok employees, the app organizes all the videos its users post into a web of clusters, sorted by topic.
The clusters are labeled with identifiers, including ones named: “mainstream female,” “alt female,” “southeastern Black male,” and “coastal, white-collar male.” Each cluster has its own subgroups, touching either on certain topics or identifying certain segments of users.
The company reportedly tracked the categories of content and users on its app in order to find ways of boosting engagement.
Those employees claimed they could view the unique identification numbers of the users associated with each cluster, as well as the list of users who were watching videos in each cluster. They also claimed to have had the ability to look up users based on that ID number to see cluster with which users were associated.
TikTok executives later grew concerned about the ability to access this data, and in 2021, restricted access to the dashboard, reducing the number of employees who were able to access it. A year later, the company deleted the dashboard entirely, and moved that data to the company’s new U.S. subsidiary, where a smaller number of authorized employees were able access it.
Internally, employees argued among themselves over whether maintaining the list of users was safe, with some arguing that it didn’t indicate whether users were members of a particular group.
But others, including the employees who complained, worried that a user’s watching habits were enough to infer aspects of their identity, such as their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The former employees who have worked elsewhere in the tech industry claim that the dashboard containing the list of LGBT video viewers was accessible to more workers than typically would be, including employees in China, who at times controlled permissions for who could view the information.
Adding another wrinkle to the situation is the fact that TikTok is owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance.
U.S. lawmakers from both major political parties have expressed concerns that the Communist Chinese government might force ByteDance to hand over data — including potentially sensitive information — about its U.S. users, potentially compromising sensitive information.
A separate Wall Street Journal investigation from March revealed that ByteDance was tracking the websites of dozens of U.S. state governments.
Many politicians have called for a ban on TikTok on all phones sold in the United States. Federal agencies and local governments have barred the use of the app by government employees, similar to existing policies in Canada and Australia banning TikTok on government-issued phones, and Montana has banned the use of the app by anyone in the state.
A spokeswoman for TikTok told the Journal that the company hasn’t been asked to provide, nor has it provided, any data on U.S.-based users to the Chinese government. She added that the dashboard of users watching LGBT content was deleted a year ago.
“Safeguarding the privacy and security of people who use TikTok is one of our top priorities,” the company told the Journal in a statement.
The spokeswoman also claimed that the app doesn’t identify potentially sensitive information, such as sexual orientation or race, based on what users watch, nor does it infer such information. For example, she said, LGBT-themed videos watched by users may represent their interests, but may not reflect a person’s identity or sexual orientation, just as a person who watches baking content may not be a baker or other culinary artist.
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