Demystifying TikTok data collection

How TikTok data collection works and how it might impact you.

Corporate responsibility


phone with TikTok
8268513 via Pixabay |
Companies like TikTok collect a ton of consumer data.

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What is TikTok?

TikTok is a social media platform for short form videos. Users create and share content and can follow other accounts. The app is known for endless scrolling and a top-notch algorithm, where users find themselves immersed in a feed that is personally curated and, in some cases, addicting.

TikTok has over one billion monthly users globally and 170 million in the U.S. alone. The app’s reach, remarkably personalized content, and ownership by a Chinese company have sparked a flood of potential bans including a law signed by President Biden in April forcing TikTok’s Chinese parent company to sell the app or effectively be banned nationwide.

What data does TikTok collect?

TikTok tracks which videos users engage with and how long they do so. The privacy policy also enables the app to track the contents of direct messages, as well as your country location, internet address, and device type. With consent, the platform can also collect users’ exact location, contacts, age, and phone number. It also seems to estimate your household income, and knows how expensive the smartphone or laptop you’re scrolling on is. 

That’s a lot of data – but it’s worth noting that TikTok does not seem to collect more data than other social media companies. A privacy researcher working with the Washington Post found that TikTok gathers less data than Facebook in some cases.

But while TikTok’s data collection might be on par with competitors, that doesn’t mean it’s not absurd. Too many of the apps we use gather way too much data about us.

How does TikTok use our data? 

TikTok and other social media companies ultimately collect data to refine our feeds with content that will keep us on the platform longer, and to sell to advertisers to target us with ads. By learning more about our interests, weaknesses, and desires, companies can shape our behavior in ways we are often unaware of, like nudging us to stay on the platform when we should probably log off.

What is TikTok’s tie to China?

TikTok is owned by the Chinese artificial intelligence company, ByteDance. While the TikTok CEO has assured lawmakers that users’ data is protected and not stored in China, concerned policymakers and citizens alike are suspicious of what might be happening behind closed doors. 

Lawmakers have pointed to Chinese laws that allow the government to demand consumer data from companies for intelligence purposes. Some have expressed further concerns around misleading content and misinformation.

Why do so many U.S. lawmakers want to ban TikTok?

Most of the current concerns around TikTok are ultimately due to the app’s connection to China. Many government officials and users worry that the Chinese government could use the app to access sensitive information about users, like their locations, and use such data in secretive or harmful ways. 

Right now, however, the Chinese government wouldn’t need to rely on TikTok to get access to Americans’ personal info. They could just buy it from data brokers – shadowy and unregulated companies that specialize in buying, aggregating and selling consumer’s personal data. 

While having our data in the hands of the Chinese government would certainly not be ideal, it makes more sense to address data privacy concerns by passing strong data privacy laws banning any company from gathering, storing or selling huge amounts of data about us. 

Is TikTok bad?

Many users find joy on TikTok. Excessive data collection on TikTok or any other platform, however, can be damaging and unnecessary. When companies gather a lot of data about us, it can have serious consequences, including making it more likely that a data breach could expose our info and end up in the hands of bad actors.

Social media platforms can also be harmful to our mental health, particularly for young users. The scores of captivating content pose significant harm to users, especially children. Studies indicate that social media use is linked to increased anxiety and depression. Internal research from Facebook, for example, found that body image issues for 1 in 3 teen girls is related to Instagram use. There’s no reason to think that TikTok has figured out how to avoid these harms.

In addition, there’s an open question if TikTok is all that good for people’s wallets. TikTok’s algorithm is known for showcasing ads in the form of influencer videos touting products. The hashtag #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt is prevalent on the app, encouraging users to make impulse purchases for stuff they wouldn’t have otherwise bought. As the platform collects more and more data, these recommendations become increasingly targeted. These harmful tactics can end up affecting young consumers’ wallets in particular.

Many products sold on TikTok are offered alongside instant loans, allowing users to pay for impulse purchases in installments through Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) apps. These instant BNPL loans can have interest rates as high as 30% and damage consumers’ credit scores in the long term. In many ways, TikTok not only normalizes excessive shopping and debt accumulation – it glamorizes it

And in late 2023, TikTok rolled out a new feature, TikTok Shop, that lets you buy products without exiting the app.

What should we do about TikTok data?

A good first step towards protecting user’s data would be for policymakers to pass laws that rein in all corporate data collection. TikTok is just one example of a much broader problem.

Companies should only collect the data that’s essential to delivering the services consumers are explicitly expecting to get. This approach would help end data harvesting and sales practices that make it so just about anyone can buy our data from any number of sources.


Bess Pierre

Intern, Don't Sell My Data campaign

Bess is an intern on the Don't Sell My Data campaign.

R.J. Cross

Director, Don't Sell My Data Campaign, PIRG

R.J. focuses on data privacy issues and the commercialization of personal data in the digital age. Her work ranges from consumer harms like scams and data breaches, to manipulative targeted advertising, to keeping kids safe online. In her work at Frontier Group, she has authored research reports on government transparency, consumer debt and predatory auto lending, and has testified before Congress. Her work has appeared in WIRED magazine, CBS Mornings and USA Today, among other outlets. When she’s not protecting the public interest, she is an avid reader, fiction writer and birder. Though she lives in Boston, she will always consider herself a Kansan at heart.

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