TikTok: A ticking time bomb?

One of the most popular apps of 2019, TikTok ruled the download charts in both the Android and Apple markets. Having more than 1.5 billion downloads and approximately half a billion monthly active users,TikTok definitely has access to a trove of user and with it: their data. A problem however, is that their key demographic is minors and with this arises the deeply sensitive question of how the data collected from these minors can be maliciously utilized.

TikTok was called Douyin was initially intended for the Chinese market only (released in 2016) but later ByteDance (the startup owning TikTok) decided to expand to the international market. To amass users from the US and Europe, TikTok bought and merged with Musical.ly (in November 2017); which too had a young user base. The app’s selling feature is that it allows its users to lip-sync to famous songs. This has attracted the attention of many children and with it apprehensive parents and lawmakers.

Much like nearly every other app, it requires the user to agree to a privacy policy, however since most of its users are under the age of 13, these children don’t really know what they are signing off to.
Herein lies the core violation by TikTok. By allowing thirteen year olds to sign off on their privacy policy they are simply doing the bare minimum to ensure informed consent. In fact the effort to inform is so minimal (and negligent) that in the US, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) fined TikTok for collecting the information children under the age of 13.

The primary argument was that by not allowing for more stringent parental consent or approval, TikTok failed to give proper informed consent (as the agreement by under-13 minors wasn’t considered valid).
Secondly the fine was quantified to $5.7 million to reflect the fact that TikTok had ‘illegally’ collected the personal information of these minors, which even though was simply used to improve their algorithm (which suggested which videos to display). Here is the second issue. By not being very transparent in the way TikTok handles their data, it opens them up to further criticism. In fact, esteemed professor and privacy buff, David Caroll, poured through TikTok’s privacy policy to found out that until February 2019, part of user data was processed in China where there are a different set of (and lot less stringent) rules which govern data use. By not clearly disclosing how data would be handled and being dodgy about key elements regarding data ownership, TikTok committed yet another morally questionable action; which could be deemed unethical.

The issue of inadequate effort to obtain informed consent and lack of transparency in conveying data ownership are the ethical objections in this case study. Though, TikTok have in some way rectified their actions, by deleting these said accounts (and its corresponding data) and removing all under-13 accounts, along with promising to enforce more stringent measures to reduce this from happening in the future. However, there are still some other potential ethical landmines for TikTok to navigate through.

I wrote this piece as part of a online course I took titled Data Science Ethics. For those interested in exploring the moral policing of technology, this course is a great place to begin.

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