TikTok accused of transferring private user data to servers in China

Photo (c) Anatoliy Sizov - Getty Images

A lawsuit claims the video sharing app harvested and sent vast amounts of user data

The company that runs the popular video app TikTok has been hit with a class-action lawsuit alleging that it transfers users’ data to servers in China. 

TikTok has amassed roughly half a billion U.S. users worldwide in recent years, with the surge in users fueled mainly by its popularity among teenagers. However, the social media platform has found itself at the center of lawmaker scrutiny over the way it handles user data. 

Now, a class-action suit filed Wednesday by a college student in California accuses TikTok and its Chinese parent company ByteDance of stealing user information without consent and transferring the data to Chinese servers. 

“TikTok clandestinely has vacuumed up and transferred to servers in China vast quantities of private and personally identifiable user data that can be employed to identify, profile and track the location and activities of users in the United States now and in the future,” the suit alleges.

Data collection concerns

The suit was filed by student Misty Hong and seeks class-action status. Hong’s lawyers claim that TikTok stored and sent large quantities of users’ personal data to servers in China as recently as April. The harvested data was then allegedly used for ad targeting purposes. 

User information taken and dispatched to China included facial scans, birthdays, phone and social network contacts, browsing history, and more, according to the suit.

“These apps infiltrate users’ devices and extract a remarkably broad array of private and personally-identifiable information that Defendants use to track and profile users for the purpose of, among other things, targeting them with advertisements from which Defendants unjustly profit,” the lawsuit claims.

Hong said she downloaded the app earlier this year but never actually created an account. Months later, she claims she discovered that the app had created an account for her without her consent. She claims the app stole a handful of videos she had made but never posted and then sent those videos to servers in China. 

Lawmaker scrutiny

Last month, the U.S. Army announced that it would be launching a security assessment of TikTok with the aim of allaying concerns raised by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D - NY) and other officials.

"National security experts have raised concerns about TikTok's collection and handling of user data, including user content and communications, IP addresses, location-related data, metadata, and other sensitive personal information," Schumer wrote in a November 7 letter to Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy.

TikTok has claimed it doesn’t store user data in Chinese servers; it has said it stores all U.S. user data in the U.S., with backups in Singapore. 

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