New report finds TikTok tracked user data on Android by employing method banned by Google

The app, which is being scrutinized by lawmakers in Washington, reportedly skirted a Google data collection rule to acquire information from Android users that makes internet privacy impossible.

The TikTok app
The TikTok app
Updated: August 12, 2020 - 3:17pm

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According to a new report by The Wall Street Journal, TikTok bypassed a defense mechanism in Google's Android operating system that allowed the app to collect unique identifiers on millions of mobile devices. That information allowed the app, which is owned by the Beijing-based ByteDance, to track users' online activity without giving them the ability to opt out of the surveillance.

The practice, which testing done by the news outlet shows was ended last November, appears to be in violation of Google's policies pertaining to how apps track users, and was not disclosed to users. 

The unique identifiers TikTok collected are called MAC addresses. Although they often are used for online advertising, the addresses could be used to create detailed personal profiles that the Chinese government could then leverage as blackmail, some believe. Lawmakers also fear that the app's significant tracking abilities could be used to discover the locations of secret government facilities.

Representatives of the app told the news outlet that "the current version of TikTok does not collect MAC addresses."

About 1% of apps available on the Android operating system collect MAC addresses. The acronym stands for "media access control," and is a 12-digit address that allows an app to enable long-term tracking of users, without giving them the ability to opt out. 

In 2013, Apple restricted the iPhone MAC addresses of its users, and Google followed suit two years later. However, TikTok reportedly was able to exploit an Android loophole and take a less straightforward path to obtaining the MAC addresses of its Android users. 

"If Google is telling users they won't be tracked without their consent and knowingly allows apps like TikTok to break its rules by collecting persistent identifiers, potentially in violation of our children's privacy laws, they've got some explaining to do," said Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). "Google needs to mind its store, and TikTok shouldn't be on it."

Recently, bipartisan groups of lawmakers as well as President Trump have exerted pressure on TikTok to cut ties with ByteDance, citing concerns about the app harvesting Americans' data that in turn could be given to the Chinese Communist Party. TikTok has maintained that it does not share data with the Chinese government and would refuse to do so, a claim about which American lawmakers are dubious.


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