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Chinese-Owned TikTok Will Now Collect Biometric Data on US Users

Neil Campbell
Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: June 6, 2021
Beijing-based ByteDance will now collect biometric data from U.S. users, according to an update to its Privacy Policy on June 2, 2021.
Beijing-based ByteDance will now collect biometric data from U.S. users, according to an update to its Privacy Policy on June 2, 2021. (Image: Solen Feyissa via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Video-based social influencing platform TikTok, owned by Beijing-headquartered ByteDance, will now collect biometric data from its users, according to a June 2 update to the app’s Privacy Policy.

TikTok added a subsection to its ‘Information We Collect Automatically’ section of the Policy titled ‘Image and Audio Information.’ The new section says it will harvest from user content “identifying the objects and scenery that appear, the existence and location within an image of face and body features and attributes, the nature of the audio, and the text of the words spoken in your User Content.”

The Policy says data is harvested explicitly for “content moderation, for demographic classification, for content and ad recommendations.”

The new section also states “We may collect biometric identifiers and biometric information as defined under US laws, such as faceprints and voiceprints, from your User Content.”

“Faceprints and voiceprints” are not specifically defined in the Policy, which also claims “Where required by law, we will seek any required permissions from you prior to any such collection.” Unfortunately for U.S. users, there is no federal law governing biometric data. Only a few states, among which are New York, Illinois, California, and Texas, have legislation for biometrics. 

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation defines biometric data as a special category of personal data consisting of “personal data resulting from specific technical processing relating to the physical, physiological, or behavioral characteristics of a natural person, which allows or confirms the unique identification of that natural person, such as facial images or fingerprint data.”

When TechCrunch asked TikTok for comment as to what the data would be collected for, the company only responded with a boilerplate about its “commitment to transparency” with some links to corporate messaging propaganda.

According to Wallroom Media, TikTok is estimated to have more than a billion monthly users across the globe, with at least 100 million being U.S. residents. The app has been downloaded more than 2.6 billion times. In January of 2021 alone, it was downloaded 62 million times.

The app brings in more than 20 million unique visitors over the age of 18 from U.S. mobile devices each month, yet more than 32 percent of its overall user base is between the ages of 10 and 19. 

Users generally show signs of addiction to using the platform. The average day screen time for users is 52 minutes a day. Yet in the 4 to 15 age bracket, that number rises to 80 minutes. The average number of times the app is opened each day is 8. 

83 percent of all users have uploaded a video. ByteDance brought in $500 million in revenue back to Beijing from U.S. users in 2020 alone. 

TechCrunch says despite the update, ByteDance already permitted itself to harvest an enormous amount of data on its users, such as “location data based on your SIM card and IP addresses and GPS, your use of TikTok itself and all the content you create or upload, the data you send in messages on its app, metadata from the content you upload, cookies, the app and file names on your device, battery state and even your keystroke patterns and rhythms, among other things.”

And that’s not all. Beijing also harvests the so-called “information you choose to provide,” such as “registration info (username, age, language, etc.), profile info (name, photo, social media accounts), all your user-generated content on the platform, your phone and social network contacts, payment information, plus the text, images and video found in the device’s clipboard.”

“I’m waiting for Huawei’s new phone with a pinprick function that collects DNA,” quipped Anders Corr, publisher of the Journal of Political Risk in a June 5 opinion piece calling for the app’s ban.

“In this brave new techno-dystopia, anything is possible,” 

“Over the last few decades, our government has allowed Americans to devolve into the Wild West again, with China’s corporations being the new tornado that rips through entire communities and their personal data,” said Corr.

In England, former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield filed a billion-dollar class action lawsuit against ByteDance in December of 2020 alleging personal information was harvested from UK children under the age of 13. 

In February of 2020, former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said ByteDance and other CCP-controlled companies, such as Huawei, “are Trojan horses for Chinese intelligence,” in comments at the Munich Security Conference.