A hugely popular mobile app has denied a media report that alleges a Chinese team planned to track the locations of US citizens.

Forbes last Thursday, citing materials it had viewed, reported last Thursday that a China-based team at TikTok’s parent organisation ByteDance, had planned to use the app to monitor the personal location of some specific American citizens.

But ByteDance has dismissed the allegations and said the the firm does not collect precise GPS location data.

Facebook Reels

Location tracking?

Forbes in its report alleged that the Chinese team at ByteDance, called the Internal Audit and Risk Control department, is lead by Beijing-based executive Song Ye, who reports to ByteDance cofounder and CEO Rubo Liang.

CEO Rubo Liang on the right

It seems this team primarily conducts investigations into potential misconduct by current and former ByteDance employees.

But Forbes citing materials it had seen, reported that in at least two cases, the Internal Audit team also planned to collect TikTok data about the location of a US citizen who had never had an employment relationship with the company.

According to Forbes it is unclear from the materials whether data about these Americans was actually collected; however, the plan was for a Beijing-based ByteDance team to obtain location data from US users’ devices.

TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan told Forbes that TikTok collects approximate location information based on users’ IP addresses to “among other things, help show relevant content and ads to users, comply with applicable laws, and detect and prevent fraud and inauthentic behaviour.”

But the material reviewed by Forbes indicates that ByteDance’s Internal Audit team was planning to use this location information to surveil individual American citizens, not to target ads or any of these other purposes.

Forbes said it was not disclosing the nature and purpose of the planned surveillance referenced in the materials in order to protect sources.

TikTok response

ByteDance issued a fulsome rebutal to the Forbes article on Twitter, and said the reporting lacked “both rigor and journalistic integrity.”

It said that Forbes omitted part of its statement that disproved the report, and it insisted that it does not collect precise GPS location information from US users.

It said that its Internal Audit Team follows set policies to investigate company code of conduct violations, and improper use would be grounds for immediate dismissal of staff.

National security

The report does leave some unanswered questions however.

When TikTok said it does not track precise location data, how precise is it talking about?

Can it for example identify the town, village or city of the user?

Last month the UK’ data protection watchdog announced that TikTok could face a £27 million fine after an investigation found ByteDance may have breached UK data protection law, for failing to protect children’s privacy when using the TikTok platform.

TikTok is of course hugely popular among the young, but security worries have surrounded the platform for a while now.

In August a number of MPs warned that TikTok data “is routinely transferred to China.

China-based firms are legally obliged under the Chinese ‘2017 Intelligence Security law’ to hand over data to Beijing if requested.

TikTok has previously insisted it has never provided user data to the Chinese government, and its user data is stored in the US and Singapore – moving to Ireland in 2023 when its new data centre opens.

Tracking rows

It should be remembered that Google landed itself in a great deal of hot water and legal actions, over alleged ‘deceptive’ location tracking practices.

In January this year Google was sued by a group of attorneys general (AG) in the US over the matter, despite location tracking already being a known issue.

Indeed Google was already facing a lawsuit in the United States for allegedly tracking phone users – regardless of privacy settings.

That 2018 lawsuit was filed after an investigation by the Associated Press found that a number of Google services running on Android and Apple devices determine the user’s location and store it, even when Google’s “Location History” setting was switched off.

Arizona’s attorney general also filed a similar lawsuit in 2020 over the matter.

And the tracking issue was noticed on this side on the pond.

In November 2018 Google was accused of being misleading about location tracking, after consumer groups from seven European nations asked their privacy regulators to take action against the search engine giant.

Consumer groups from the Netherlands, Poland, Czech Republic, Greece, Norway, Slovenia and Sweden, all filed GDPR complaints against Google’s location tracking.

They alleged that Google was tracking the movements of millions of users in breach of the European Union’s privacy laws.

Google has made some changes however.

In June 2020 Google said it would automatically delete user’s website searches and visits, as well as some location data, after 18 months.

But the changes will only apply to new accounts. Existing users will have to adjust their settings when they are shown prompts.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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