A phone screen showing the Tiktok app icon

Tiktok's privacy paradox

8 minutes to read
Article
Marieke Weeda
18/10/2021

By now, the fast-rising social media app TikTok has gained mainstream popularity. Next to the new possibilities that the platform structure offers and the positive reception of these possibilities, throughout its rise, the platform has also been met with criticism. One of the most prominent and continuous points of critique on TikTok regards privacy concerns. There have been multiple sparks of concern and outrage regarding various aspects of TikTok's privacy settings and policies. The privacy on TikTok is negotiated on levels varying from individual users to official lawsuits. However, privacy on TikTok is not only seen from a negative angle: TikTok's usage of user data for content personalization is something that can also be appreciated by some users.

This article will explore the privacy features on Tiktok, and more specifically the privacy paradox: how TikTok's privacy features can be both controversial and appreciated. 

TikTok and privacy

TikTok is a social media platform structured around sharing short videos. The app became available worldwide in 2018 after its merge with video-sharing platform Musical.ly, and only two years after this worldwide release, TikTok hit two billion worldwide downloads. 

The basic user privacy settings that TikTok offers are comparable to other apps: signing up asks for a user's birth date, and an email or phone number. An account can be set to either public or private. When posting a TikTok, the user is presented with three visibility options: Everyone, Friends (where ‘friends’ are defined as followers that follow you back), and Only me. Moreover, there is a settings page with privacy settings where things such as contact discovery, accessibility to a private message and download permission for the videos a user made can be adjusted. These settings can be referred to as rather ‘basic’ and understandable settings that the user has control over with a few clicks of a button. Next to these, there are settings regarding wider privacy policies such as personal data usage. 

As concluded in research on TikTok's privacy conducted by the Washington Post, the app does not seem to collect more data than similar social media platforms such as Facebook. That does not justify any privacy issues but rather shows that TikTok is no worse than comparable apps. Because the volume of the data seems rather similar to other platforms, the concerns lie not so much there, but rather at the uncertainty about who can access or use TikTok users' data, and how it is used. These questions on data usage have been the centre of controversies. In the rather short time that TikTok has been existing, there have been numerous critical investigations of the platform as well as lawsuits against it. In 2019, TikTok settled to pay 5.7 million dollars for collecting the data of children under 13 without explicit permission from their guardians. This is only one of many cases: also in 2019, two lawsuits were filed against TikTok in the span of a week. One filed by a college student who accused the app of sending data to China, and one by a family about the same topic that was already sparked earlier in the year of data collection of children under 13. Recently, this same topic sparked yet another lawsuit, this time filed on behalf of children from the UK and EU. These are some examples of the countless cases of backlash related to privacy that TikTok has faced since its release. 

Even the normally very powerful force of the state does not have full control, they also have to interact with others in the network, such as the policy makers of TikTok. 

While some of these big cases against TikTok were initiated by powerful and often influential forces such as the state, others were sparked by critical individuals or small groups of people. This starts to show how privacy is operated on multiple levels. This is what Marwick & boyd (2014) refer to as networked privacy: with this concept, they turn away from a traditional view on privacy as an individually manageable thing. Instead, they show how privacy is negotiated in a broad network with multiple, sometimes countless actors. TikTok privacy also shows this broad network: users can tweak individual settings, but when videos can be saved or shared they do not have full control over who sees their videos. Users can adjust their settings of data sharing, but can never use the app without sharing any data at all. Moreover, users are often unaware of what data they share, with who, and for what purposes exactly because this network has so many actors. Even the normally very powerful force of the state does not have full control, they also have to interact with others in the network, such as the policymakers of TikTok. Since TikTok is a platform that is used worldwide, it transcends national laws, and international laws are even more difficult to establish. 

Resistance

BecauseTikTok's complicated privacy network consists of many actors , users do make attempts at gaining a little bit of control over their privacy. As demonstrated, this can be done in a top-down approach through lawsuits and legal arguments, though users can also resist the surveillance in bottom-up practices. These practices are what Brunton & Nissenbaum (2013) call obfuscation. The practice of obfuscation is to intentionally pollute, mislead or confuse information so that the data becomes less useful for surveillance. Common ways of obfuscation include filling in a different date of birth or using a VPN. It is the question of whether TikTok users do this to resist surveillance, or simply bypass age limits or see country-specific content.  

Privacy is not only about managing access to data but also managing access to content. This can be done through a technical way such as making an account private,posting videos to ‘friends only’, or even making a second or third account for a different audience, and can beconstructed in a social way. In their theorizations on context collapse, Marwick & boyd (2014) mention the notion of social steganography, meaning to restrict access not to the content, but to the meaning of the content. As TikTok content recommendation is very personalized, the same jokes, trends or sounds might only become visible to a select group. TikTok content can therefore be encoded with hidden meanings, where only the users that understand the context can access its meaning.. 

Hyper-personalized content curation

It becomes visible through various forms of obfuscation, resistance and social steganography, as well as legal action, users try to get a grip on their privacy on TikTok even when they are far from being able to control it all. With this, TikTok's privacy gets perceived in a negative way, as something that needs to be resisted or actively controlled. However, it isn’t all framed negatively: Tiktok's usage of user data for personalization of recommended content is something that is by many users appreciated as an important aspect of the app. 

One aspect where TikTok differs from other social media platforms is t that there is not as much focus on the ‘following’ page, where users see videos from creators they follow. Instead, the focus is put more on the so-called For You Page, where users see continuous new content recommended to them, of users they mostly do not follow. This For You Page is algorithmically tailored to every individual user, according to TikTok this is done based on user data such as device and account settings, the data of the videos, as well as the user interactions such as commenting, sharing and liking content. The users' preferences and interests are detected and turned into data. This constant adjustment can work very quickly and accurately: for example, I liked a few videos about a certain band, and today every other video on my For You Page is about them.

Even though through this accurate hyper-personalization it becomes apparent how accurate and personal TikTok's data collection can be, users mostly seem to appreciate this instead of worrying about it. Users show themselves very aware of this data usage and accuracy: phenomena such as commenting “this reached the right side of TikTok” to indicate a specific Tiktok landed with the audience that understands it, or jokes on users getting sorted into ‘alt’ or ‘straight’ sides of TikTok are very common. 

Users can also steer their data double and therefore personalize their For You Page even more by intentionally engaging with specific types of content.

By both actively and passively providing the TikTok app with data, a data double of every user is created: this data double is a collection of the users’ data, making a virtual person based on it. Despite maybe not knowing the technical term of data double, users do show themselves aware of not only that a profile of interests is made of them, but also how they can influence this. This can be done in a rather joking manner. For example, this user asking users that are lgbtq+ to interact with the video so that she ends up on this ‘lgbtq+ side’ of TikTok too. 

Figure one: user asking lgbtq+ users to interact with the video

Users can also steer their data double and therefore personalize their For You Page even more by intentionally engaging with specific types of content. Many of these actions are user-initiated, but next to this Tiktok also offers the option to click ‘not interested’ on videos or hide certain users or sounds. In this way, it can be said that Tiktok users can combine the technological affordances of the platform with personal choices to steer their data double, all with the goal of getting their For You Page and Tiktok community as accurate and personal as possible.

Privacy paradox

Users’ attitude towards TikTok's privacy can be described as a privacy paradox. On the one hand, the topic of privacy on TikTok has been faced with lots of backlashes, even in the form of big lawsuits that ended in massive fines for the platform. Tiktok does not seem to collect more data than comparable social media platforms, but it can be unclear what is done with the data and who can access it. What is important to note here is that many of the privacy concerns also refer to the fact that the TikTok app was developed in China, instead of the US like other major platforms. Therefore, xenophobia can meddle into privacy concerns, where even with the same data usage a Chinese app is distrusted by more than one from the United States. TikTok is a privacy network where countless actors interact. Both organized groups and other organizations such as the state as well as individual users find ways to navigate in this network and gain a bit of personal control. 

Conversly, the fact that TikTok collects user data that is very accurate and uses this date for personalization purposes is appreciated by many users.. The more accurate the data, the more accurately personalized a users For You Page is. Users show themselves aware of this for example through jokes about different sides of TikTok. Through user effort combined with technological affordances the users and the platform work together to make their data double as accurate as possible. This is why TikTok can be described as a privacy paradox where data collection is both feared and appreciated.

References 

Brunton, F., & Nissenbaum, H. (2013). Political and ethical perspectives on data obfuscation. Privacy, due process and the computational turn: The philosophy of law meets the philosophy of technology, 164-188. 

Marwick, A. E., & boyd, d. (2014). Networked privacy: How teenagers negotiate context in social media. New media & society, 16(7), 1051-1067