TikTok Tracks You Across the Web, Even If You Don’t Use the App
A Consumer Reports investigation finds that TikTok, one of the country’s most popular apps, is partnering with a growing number of other companies to hoover up data about people as they travel across the internet. That includes people who don’t have TikTok accounts. These companies embed tiny TikTok trackers called “pixels” in their websites. Then TikTok uses the information gathered by all those pixels to help the companies target ads at potential customers, and to measure how well their ads work. To look into TikTok’s use of online tracking, CR asked the security firm Disconnect to scan about 20,000 websites for the company’s pixels. In our list, we included the 1,000 most popular websites overall, as well as some of the biggest sites with domains ending in “.org,” “.edu,” and “.gov.” We wanted to look at those sites because they often deal with sensitive subjects. We found hundreds of organizations sharing data with TikTok.
If you go to the United Methodist Church’s main website, TikTok hears about it. Interested in joining Weight Watchers? TikTok finds that out, too. The Arizona Department of Economic Security tells TikTok when you view pages concerned with domestic violence or food assistance. Even Planned Parenthood uses the trackers, automatically notifying TikTok about every person who goes to its website, though it doesn’t share information from the pages where you can book an appointment. (None of those groups responded to requests for comment.) The number of TikTok trackers we saw was just a fraction of those we observed from Google and Meta. However, TikTok’s advertising business is exploding, and experts say the data collection will probably grow along with it.
After Disconnect researchers conducted a broad search for TikTok trackers, we asked them to take a close look at what kind of information was being shared by 15 specific websites. We focused on sites where we thought people would have a particular expectation of privacy, such as advocacy organizations and hospitals, along with retailers and other kinds of companies. Disconnect found that data being transmitted to TikTok can include your IP address, a unique ID number, what page you’re on, and what you’re clicking, typing, or searching for, depending on how the website has been set up. What does TikTok do with all that information? “Like other platforms, the data we receive from advertisers is used to improve the effectiveness of our advertising services,” says Melanie Bosselait, a TikTok spokesperson. The data “is not used to group individuals into particular interest categories for other advertisers to target.” If TikTok receives data about someone who doesn’t have a TikTok account, the company only uses that data for aggregated reports that they send to advertisers about their websites, she says. There’s no independent way for consumers or privacy researchers to verify such statements. But TikTok’s terms of service say its advertising customers aren’t allowed to send the company certain kinds of sensitive information, such as data about children, health conditions, or finances. “We continuously work with our partners to avoid inadvertent transmission of such data,” TikTok’s Bosselait says.