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TikTok kept record of users who watched LGBTQ+ content, former employees say

This article is about TikTok users watching LGBTQ+ content. In the photo, two hands holding a phone with the TikTok app on the screen.
This article is about TikTok users watching LGBTQ+ content. In the photo, two hands holding a phone with the TikTok app on the screen. Via Pexels - cottonbro studio

Popular social media app TikTok allegedly compiled a list of users who watched LGBTQ+ content on its platform and kept records of their viewing habits.

According to former employees who spoke to The Wall Street Journal, the Chinese social media app compiled sensitive information about its users by creating lists based on what content they watched on its platform. In these lists, users were identifiable by their ID number, which is given to people when they start watching videos on the app.

Such lists, among which was one with users who watched LGBTQ+ content, were stored on a dashboard that could be viewed by authorised staff. According to the report, several TikTok employees raised concerns over the possibility that, in case of a breach of privacy, such data could be used to identify vulnerable users and expose them to the risk of violence and harassment for being perceived as LGBTQ+. Moreover, fears were raised that some employees might share the information with outside parties or use it to blackmail users.

The practice took place for “at least a year”, with the goal of understanding trends to boost engagement on the social media platform. The former employees told The Wall Street Journal that they flagged the issue to top executives in 2020 and 2021, after which access to the dashboard containing the information was further restricted. In 2022, the dashboard was deleted, but the data was moved to the company’s US unit and remains accessible by a “smaller number of authorised employees”.

A spokesperson from TikTok gave a statement to The Wall Street Journal, saying that the dashboard had been deleted and that it did not identify any potentially sensitive information such as users’ sexual orientation or race. “Safeguarding the privacy and security of people who use TikTok is one of our top priorities,” the statement read.

Privacy concerns about TikTok’s data collection practices have been raised in the past, with several countries such as the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand banning the use of the app on government devices. In Ireland, government staff has been also advised to delete the app from their work devices.

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