July 13, 2024

TikTok Secretly Monitored Gay Content Viewers for Over a Year, Igniting Employee Protests

According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, TikTok tracked users who watched gay content for at least a year, leading to employee complaints. The platform did not ask users for their sexual orientation but cataloged the content they watched, including affiliated users who watched LGBT content and their ID numbers.

Employees in the US, UK, and Australia raised concerns about this practice to higher-level executives in 2020 and 2021. They feared that the data could be shared with outside parties or used for blackmail purposes. While many social media and ad-tech companies infer traits about users based on online behavior for targeted content or ads, industry practices generally discourage tracking sensitive traits such as sexuality.

TikTok faces unique scrutiny regarding its data handling due to concerns about potential Chinese government influence. The dashboard used to access the data on gay content watchers was deleted in the US nearly a year ago. TikTok does not identify or infer potentially sensitive information such as sexual orientation or race of users based on what they watch.

Some employees argued that the data collection was safe, while others disagreed. The Biden administration has demanded that TikTok’s Chinese owners sell their stakes in the app or face a possible US ban. In response, TikTok has tried to be more transparent about its data-gathering and content moderation practices.

Former employees say the dashboard was accessible to more workers than is common at other tech platforms, including those in China. TikTok now stores the data in its new US subsidiary, with access limited to approved employees in the unit.

Other social media platforms like Meta Platforms also track similar data but have locked down access to sensitive information. No comprehensive US privacy law regulates the practice of collecting sensitive data. The Network Advertising Initiative, an industry trade group, has forbidden members from targeting people based on inferred LGBT identity since 2015.

TikTok tracked categories of content and users to understand trends and boost engagement. In 2021, TikTok restricted access to the dashboard, and in 2022, it deleted the dashboard, moving the data to its new US unit.

Here are 20 takeaway from the article

  1. TikTok tracked users who watched gay content for at least a year, leading to employee complaints.
  2. The platform did not ask users for their sexual orientation but cataloged the content they watched.
  3. The data set included affiliated users who watched LGBT content, along with their ID numbers.
  4. Employees in the US, UK, and Australia raised concerns about this practice to higher-level executives in 2020 and 2021.
  5. There were fears that the data could be shared with outside parties or used for blackmail purposes.
  6. Many social media and ad-tech companies infer traits about users based on online behavior for targeted content or ads.
  7. However, industry practices discourage tracking sensitive traits such as sexuality.
  8. TikTok faces unique scrutiny regarding its data handling due to concerns about potential Chinese government influence.
  9. The dashboard used to access the data on gay content watchers was deleted in the US nearly a year ago.
  10. TikTok does not identify or infer potentially sensitive information such as sexual orientation or race of users based on what they watch.
  11. Some employees argued that the data collection was safe, while others disagreed.
  12. The Biden administration has demanded that TikTok’s Chinese owners sell their stakes in the app or face a possible US ban.
  13. TikTok has tried to be more transparent about its data-gathering and content moderation practices.
  14. Former employees say the dashboard was accessible to more workers than is common at other tech platforms, including those in China.
  15. TikTok now stores the data in its new US subsidiary, with access limited to approved employees in the unit.
  16. Other social media platforms like Meta Platforms also track similar data but have locked down access to sensitive information.
  17. No comprehensive US privacy law regulates the practice of collecting sensitive data.
  18. The Network Advertising Initiative, an industry trade group, has forbidden members from targeting people based on inferred LGBT identity since 2015.
  19. TikTok tracked categories of content and users to understand trends and boost engagement.
  20. In 2021, TikTok restricted access to the dashboard and in 2022, it deleted the dashboard, moving the data to its new US unit.
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