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 users. With that large user base comes a hidden goldmine: 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 and was initially intended for the Chinese market only (released in 2016). However, ByteDance (the company that owns 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, a company that also 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.
The Problem with TikTok
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 was simply used to improve their video suggestion algorithm.
TikTok User Data in China
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.
However, TikTok have in some ways rectified their actions. They have deleted all accounts of those under 13 along with the corresponding data. They have also promised to enforce more stringent measures to reduce this from happening in the future. However, there still remain 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.
Previously published on: https://lucidityproject.home.blog/2020/01/26/tiktok-a-ticking-time-bomb/