News (World)

TikTok secretly tracked which users viewed LGBTQ+ videos

A person using TikTok
A person using TikTok Photo: Shutterstock

TikTok, the popular video-sharing social platform, maintained a list of worldwide users who watch LGBTQ+ videos. Employees worried the list could leak, allowing governments and blackmailers to monitor and harass LGBTQ+ people worldwide, especially in countries that criminalize LGBTQ+ identities.

From at least 2020 to 2021, the list was kept on a dashboard accessible to employees around the world. This data was more widely available to its workers than is common at other tech companies, former TikTok employees told The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). TikTok employees in the U.S., U.K., and Australia warned TikTok executives that the list could be leaked and used to blackmail users.

Online video-streaming companies regularly track user viewing habits to decide what content and ads to serve users. However, many companies severely restrict employee access to this data. Furthermore, industry practices discourage apps from tracking users by potentially sensitive traits, like sexuality.

Former employees said TikTok organizes user videos into a web of topic “clusters” and then studies user data within them to understand trends for boosting engagement. Users were identified by a number string that allowed employees to identify their screen names. TikTok administrators in China had access to this list and sometimes controlled which employees could access it, former employees told the WSJ.

A spokeswoman for ByteDance, TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company, said the company had restricted employee access to the list and now anonymizes users’ viewing habits, making them harder to connect to specific topics and individual users.

She said the aforementioned employee dashboard was deleted in the U.S. about a year ago. At that time, TikTok opened a U.S.-based subsidiary company to handle U.S. users’ data over U.S. political concerns of TikTok sharing its data with China’s government.

U.S. President Joe Biden has demanded that TikTok’s Chinese owners sell their stakes so that its data won’t be shared with Chinese government agents, something required under Chinese law. China has denied ever requiring companies to gather data and intelligence from overseas.

TikTok was never asked by the Chinese government to provide U.S.-user data nor did the company provide such data, TikTok’s spokeswoman added. She also said the aforementioned data was only accessible to authorized TikTok employees, though she didn’t specify how many people had access.

She added that the company neither “infers” nor “identifies” users’ potentially sensitive information. She also said that watching LGBTQ+ videos doesn’t mean someone identifies as LGBTQ+, just as many non-bakers enjoy TikTok’s baking content.

However, unlike baking, being LGBTQ+ is illegal in at least 64 countries around the world. Queer people widely face violence and discrimination, even in countries where it isn’t criminalized, leading some LGBTQ+ individuals to hide their identities and personal viewing habits.

LGBTQ+ activists in China have accused the government of using public surveillance technology to monitor their online activities and harass them. China has also cracked down on movies, newspapers, and internet access and has also previously disbanded LGBTQ+ organizations. In 2021, WeChat, China’s largest social media platform, deleted dozens of LGBTQ-related accounts run by non-governmental organizations and student groups.

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