TikTok: What it knows about you and what you can do about it

Written by Shaina on August 18, 2020

Image of a phone running the tiktok app

In our latest blog post we explore the rapid rise of the new social media app, TikTok, the privacy concerns it has created and how we can help you to manage it.

What is TikTok?

TikTok is a short form video sharing app that has quickly risen to become one of the top social media platforms in the world. Valued at $75 billion, TikTok has over 800 million users worldwide who watch over 1 billion videos everyday.

While TikTok has garnered massive media attention from these whopping engagement metrics, they have also been under fire for data privacy concerns. After receiving a $5.7 million fine for illegally collecting data on children under the age of 13 in 2019, they are also facing scrutiny and concern for being owned by Chinese conglomerate ByteDance. President Trump signed an executive order in early August giving ByteDance 45 days to sell its U.S. counterpart to an American company before banning the app entirely over national security concerns around the Chinese government’s access to American TikTok users’ data.

So what exactly does TikTok know about you? What are the positives and negatives to using TikTok and what can you do to keep yourself safe while utilizing it?

The Data TikTok Collects On Its Users

We recommend you review TikTok’s full privacy policy for the complete breakdown of what data they collect, how they share this data, and your rights.

As a quick summary, TikTok collects data on you from three main sources:

  • Data you provide (your profile information, language, posted content, and contacts)
  • Data from third party sources (connected social media accounts, third parties such as advertisers, and public documents)
  • Automatic assumptions and engagement inferences (usage information, device information, location data, messages, metadata, and cookies)

The widespread use of Automatic assumptions makes TikTok extremely powerful and highlights a deeper data privacy concern. Because a large amount of your data collected by the app is based on assumptions and inferences, as a user, you lack control over how you are virtually defined.

With all of these privacy concerns being made aware through the media, why has TikTok seen so much success?

The benefits of TikTok

Access to large, global virtual communities of shared interests and values.

According to a McKinsey report, Gen Z does not distinguish between their physical and virtual friendships. With 60% of TikTok users being between 16-24 years old, this virtual platform has provided a world of companionship, especially in the midst of quarantining during a global pandemic. In fact, TikTok had over 300M downloads in Q1 this year, to take its total number of downloads to over 2BN!

Targeted For You Page for an entertaining, personalized experience.

TikTok uses powerful algorithms and AI technology to provide its users with an extremely targeted feed of videos. While users can follow specific accounts, the popular “For You Page” content feed provides TikTokers with an endless stream of randomized videos that update to fit the determined interests of each user.

Massive library of endless content that grants wide exposure to anyone.

Between the endless communities and hashtags, TikTok is a unique app in that it offers all of its users the ability to go viral. With the randomized For You Page, it is very common for small accounts to suddenly rack up millions of likes on one of their videos without being one of the app’s main influencers. This motivates users to give it their all by creating shareable content ranging from art, music, dance, comedy, life hacks, politics, entrepreneurship, fitness, and beyond. TikTok has also announced a $200 million creator fund with plans to grow it to $1 billion in 3 years.

Paired with significant privacy concerns

Extensive and comprehensive data collection.

While TikTok’s privacy policy is quite extensive, there are still blurry gaps around how much data they have, where it is stored, who has access to it, and how exactly this can affect you and your personal privacy and security into the future. This relates to the previously mentioned concerns around TikTok’s relation to its parent company ByteDance.

Its very design, purpose, and functionality is centered on public exposure and data analysis.

While users have the option to turn off cookies, not connect their contact list, put their profiles on public, opt out of posting videos, comments, and not send videos to their friends, these options limit a user’s full experience. The main For You Page relies on its analysis of your engagement to provide curated content for endless scrolling (users reportedly spend on average 52 minutes per day on TikTok). Profiles need to be on public to appear on the For You Page for the potential to become “TikTok famous.” Connecting to global communities and friends by sharing relatable videos and interests requires messaging and sharing capabilities. Turning off all of these features to protect your privacy therefore completely conflates with the full experience of the app.

Prominence of advertising to promote products and values.

Advertising on TikTok has exploded with the company spending $3 million on U.S. advertisements per day. Based on user engagement, extreme targeting, the app is extremely powerful in swaying its users’ opinions on companies, products, and potentially values as a prominent, trusted source for many users.

Image of networks

What Can You Do?

We interviewed Jade Holman, a fellow for the Public Engagement Project at Georgetown who is researching the rise of big tech and its implications for privacy and data collection for her upcoming book Do You Trust Your Tech?, about what you can do to protect yourself as a TikTok user. Jade’s recommendations boiled down to awareness of the data they collect and the controls you have.

As a TikTok user, it is key that you are aware of the data that is being collected on you and how it is being applied. This includes reading and understanding TikTok’s privacy policy and researching the company’s use of its users’ data from multiple resources. This also involves understanding that curated content does not only enhance already existing and solidified beliefs, but that once the application makes assumptions about your values and interests, it has a sneaky, powerful ability to build new value systems and learnings around new information, events, and morals through an extremely biased lens.

To avoid pigeonholing yourself into extremely biased perspectives, it is crucial that you do not rely on applications such as TikTok as your primary source of information.

How we can help

Is all this overwhelming? yourself.online provides actionable tools and peace of mind to ensure that you are the one determining how you appear on virtual platforms and what data is out there about you. Our service also offers step-by-step guides to help you remove your data and maximize your security and privacy settings across the largest web platforms. We also include Social Media Cleanup and Persona Building Tools. Check out the video for our new TikTok feature below. Click here to join yourself.online and get started today!

Animated image showing the functionality within yourself.online website to manage TikTok


Business of Apps - TikTok Revenue and Usage Statistics (2020)

Forbes - AI in China: How Buzzfeed Rival ByteDance Uses Machine Learning To Revolutionize The News

Oberlo - 10 TikTok Statistics That You Need To Know in 2020

The Guardian - TikTok under investigation over child data use

NPR - Trump Signs Executive Order That Will Effectively Ban Use of TikTok In the U.S.

TikTok - Privacy Policy

McKinsey & Company - ‘True Gen’: Generation Z and its implications for companies

New York Times - The Virus Changed the Way We Internet

Wallaroo Media - TikTok Algorithm - The Definitive Guide

TikTok - How TikTok recommends videos #ForYou

TikTok- Fair competition and transparency benefits us all

Boingboing.net - TikTok is valued at $75b, is spending $3m/ day on US advertising, and in China, it has turned into a state propaganda vehicle