China-owned social network TikTok was banned in India three years ago because of geopolitical tension between the two nations. However, the data of Indian users who once used TikTok is still accessible to Beijing-based Bytedance, according to Forbes.
TikTok is on the verge of a nationwide ban in the United States over security concerns. The ubiquitous social-media app has more than 100 million users in the US, but it’s already banned in many government agencies throughout Canada, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere.
Now, the Biden administration has threatened to force ByteDance to sell its stake in TikTok or face a complete US ban.
Indians’ data still accessible to TikTok
Almost anyone at the companies with basic access to their tools can retrieve and analyze granular data about past TikTok users in India, according to Forbes.
“I don’t think [Indians are] aware of how much of their data is exposed to China right now, even with the ban in place,” said a current TikTok employee.
Indians’ data has been “accessible since the country banned the app,” according to those familiar with the matter.
A social mapping tool within TikTok, jokingly referred to as “NSA-To-Go,” can generate a list of a user’s closest connections and their personal information, even for private accounts. The tool still works for users in India, per the story.
“From [their social graphs], if you want to start a movement, if you want to divide people, if you want to do any kind of operation to influence the public on the app, you can just use that information to target those groups,” said the current employee.
TikTok staffers can use a unique identifier, or UID, to access personal information about users, including their friends, location, and content sharing habits.
This UID can be used across TikTok and other internal tools to gather more data, including search behaviour, allowing the creation of a “digital dossier” on any user – even those with private accounts.
‘Strong internal policies’
TikTok has not confirmed whether it still uses data collected from past users in India.
“We have steadfastly complied, and continue to remain in full compliance, with the Government of India order since it was implemented,” said TikTok spokesperson Jason Grosse in an email.
India’s 2020 ban on TikTok prohibits public access due to concerns that data collected could be sent back to China. However, the ban did not include any clause to delete the app data TikTok had already captured.
“All user data is subject to our robust internal policy controls surrounding access, retention, and deletion,” explained Grosse.
TikTok refutes data-sharing claim
Responding to recent allegations concerning data security, TikTok’s CEO will this week assure lawmakers that US data won’t be shared with the Chinese government.
“TikTok has never shared, or received a request to share, US user data with the Chinese government. Nor would TikTok honor such a request if one were ever made,” CEO Shou Zi Chew will testify on Thursday, according to written testimony posted on Tuesday by the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.
Chew added that parent company ByteDance is not controlled by any government, and “is not an agent of China or any other country.”