Social media giant TikTok denied it tracks American users’ location data, disputing allegations in a new report that its China-based parent company planned to target specific people and monitor their movements through the video-based app popular with younger users around the globe.
TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said the TikTok app does not collect precise GPS location information from U.S. users.
“TikTok has never been used to ‘target’ any members of the U.S. government, activists, public figures or journalists, nor do we serve them a different content experience than other users,” Ms. Oberwetter said in a statement.
A new report by Forbes.com contends that a China-based team at ByteDance, TikTok’s Beijing-founded parent company, planned to use the website to monitor the personal location information of select U.S. individuals.
While the ByteDance internal audit team focused on surveilling its own employees, the team also allegedly sought to collect location data on a U.S. citizen who was never employed by the company, according to the Forbes report. The broader plan appeared aimed at gathering people’s approximate location to help show relevant ads to people, but Forbes said it reviewed material suggesting the actual purpose was to monitor certain U.S. users.
Ms. Oberwetter said TikTok is incapable of monitoring U.S. users’ exact location. The internal auditors, she added, are not involved in product development so they would not be able to create such tools.
“Like any company, our internal audit team follows set processes to acquire the data and information they need to conduct their internal investigations,” she said.
The alleged vulnerability of people’s data on TikTok to ByteDance and the ruling Chinese Communist Party is a longstanding concern for U.S. policymakers. The communist regime’s policies of military-civil “fusion” call for deep and broad cooperation between private Chinese companies and the government.
Leaked audio of more than 80 internal TikTok meetings showed engineers located in China had access to U.S. data between September 2021 and January 2022, according to recordings accessed by BuzzFeed.
TikTok has said it previously stored U.S. user data in the U.S. and Singapore.
TikTok said earlier this year it was working to address the location and data accessibility issues through a new partnership with the American-based tech company Oracle. TikTok said Oracle would help develop and audit its data management protocols.
Worries persisted about data collected on TikTok, however. Researcher Felix Krause said in August he had observed TikTok tracking people’s internet activity when they navigated to other websites through links on the platform. He described the monitoring as similar to a keylogger that records everyone’s keystrokes.
TikTok called his research incorrect and misleading and said the information collected was only used for debugging, troubleshooting and performance monitoring.
Fresh concerns about location data’s accessibility on TikTok arose even as the tech platform appears to have moved closer to resolving national security concerns raised by the Biden administration. TikTok said in September it was confident it was on a path to satisfy the federal government’s national security concerns.
TikTok’s business has faced scrutiny since 2020, when the Trump administration sought to block transactions involving the platform that would have effectively restricted the app’s distribution.
President Biden rescinded Mr. Trump’s action and replaced it with an order creating a new framework for evaluating risk on connected software applications.