TikTok leads tech firms in tracking users, harvesting data

"This was the highest (worst) score relative to all other applications we tested."

Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok is at the top of the list when it comes to collecting data on their users, a joint US and Australia cyber security organization reported last week.

On February 13, Internet 2.0's new artificial intelligence (AI)-powered project called Malcore identified the rankings of each major social media site, finding that TikTok tops any other comparable platform in the industry when it comes to collecting personal information. According to Malcore's analytics, the Chinese app got 63.1 points, the "worst" score.

"This was the highest (worst) score relative to all other applications we tested," the announcement from Malcore reads. "TikTok got this score because it had 9 trackers and a lot of permissions and code severity warnings."

The only platform that was ranked closely to the popular video app was VK, a Russian app that is globally banned from the Apple Store. The "industry standard," for the vast majority of other sites, according to the announcement, was an average score of 28.8. To the cyber security organization, lower scores reflect lower levels of collecting user's personal information.

Out of the 21 applications tested, programs like Zoom, Discord, and Telegram were all ranked relatively low with under 15 points. Apps like Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, and Instagram were all in the 30's.

The fact that VK, based in St. Petersburg, Russia, is ranked slightly lower than TikTok was worrisome for Malcore analysts.

"Considering TikTok scored higher than VK this again raised our concerns about TikTok," the blog post reads.

In a July 2022 statement to the Australian Financial Review, a spokesperson from TikTok said that the app is "not unique in the amount of information it collects, which is less than many popular mobile apps."

"In line with industry practices, we collect information that users choose to provide to us and information that helps the app function, operate securely, and improve the user experience," they added.

However, compared to most other social media platforms, TikTok has more trackers, according to the Malcore report. Snapchat and Microsoft Teams both only had four compared to TikTok's nine.

"A tracker is a piece of software with the task to gather information on the person using the application. A tracker can be used to monitor usage and engagement, for example in analytics or advertising. Trackers normally are a legitimate software development kit (SDK) designed to help developers understand how their apps are being used, resolve potential issues and improve their software. Importantly for privacy though there is a large market buying the data collected by these SDKs to improve advertising spend and to better understand user's behavior," Malcore researchers wrote.

Earlier in February, the White House announced that it had banned TikTok from being allowed on their devices. 

"The president– the Biden administration more broadly, has never allowed TikTok on the White House devices," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters during a briefing, noting that other federal agencies have implemented similar restrictions.

"We have been clear about our concerns on apps like TikTok," she continued, "and so we are focused on the challenges of certain countries, including China, seeking to leverage digital technologies and Americans' data in ways that present unaccountable – unacceptable national security risks."

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