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TikTok lawsuit claims video app ‘vacuums up’ user data and sends it to China

AFP via Getty Images

The massively popular video-based social network TikTok has been accused of illegally transferring user data from the United States to China, in a class-action lawsuit filed in California. TikTok is owned by technology company ByteDance, which is based in Beijing, and is the international spinoff of the even more popular Chinese social app Douyin.

The lawsuit claims:

“[TikTok] has acquired one of the largest installed user bases in the country on the strength of fun activities like dancing, lip-syncing, and stunts. Unknown to its users, however, is that TikTok also includes Chinese surveillance software. 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.”

There is no direct evidence given on the lawsuit file, but the named plaintiff describes how the TikTok app created an account for her without her consent after downloading it, and apparently created a file that includes personally identifiable data, biometrics, and videos that were not uploaded to the service. The lawsuit covers violation of the computer fraud act, data access fraud, privacy violations, intrusion, unfair competition laws, false advertising, negligence, and finally, unjust enrichment.

While TokTok closely resembles the Chinese Douyin app, there are many differences between them, and TikTok has stated that all user data collected from the U.S. is stored in the U.S., with a backup in Singapore. It has said no data from the U.S. is stored on servers in China. However, the named plaintiff’s filing says data was transferred to two servers — one owned by Tencent and the other by Alibaba Group, two internet mega-companies in China — in China earlier this year.

This is not the first time TikTok’s app has been under the microscope for allegedly illegally collecting data. At the beginning of 2019, it was found guilty of collecting personal information from children using the app without consent, when the app was known in the U.S. as ByteDance acquired in late 2017. The company settled the lawsuit brought about by the FTC for $5.7 million.

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