This is a transcript of episode 69 of the Let’s Get Data-Driven Podcast

I’m Lanie Lamarre and I recently deleted my TikTok account and uninstalled the app from my mobile phone. Today on the podcast, I’ll be talking about why I did that, and why you want to think about your use of the social media platform as well.

I want to start this conversation by making it very clear that this episode is not a “let’s pick on TikTok” session. I don’t think TikTok is any worse than Facebook and Instagram with how they’re collecting personal information and what they’re doing with it – which isn’t a compliment to either company, by the way, because both of them ARE pretty bad – but that’s the truth behind a lot of social media.

Any time you’re using a free product like social media, you have to realize YOU are probably the actual product being sold. –> The fact that your personal information is being monetized is what makes it free to use!

If you were to listen to the politicians, you would hear that the biggest problem with TikTok is that it is Chinese-owned and this poses a “national security threat” because the data of American people using the app is collected and stored in Beijing. Why is this a concern? Despite TikTok stating that they “never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked”, according to VPN Overview, this claim “seems impossible now that new security laws have been introduced in Hong Kong.” Furthermore, as CNBC reports, “China’s National Intelligence Law requires Chinese organizations and citizens to “support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work.” What I’m hearing is that it kinda doesn’t matter what TikTok says they’re going to do because legally, they may very well be forced into doing whatever they’re told to do. This is where privacy laws and safeguards and watchdogs come into play, and you can be thankful for those you have because communist China doesn’t exactly value the “personal” aspect of your personal information the way constitutional states allow for.

So what personal information are we talking about?

A lot of information falls under the definition of Personally Identifiable Information – or what the cool kids call PII – including your credit card number, your pictures, your medical appointments, your geotracking information, the content of your text messages, your email and physical address, and so forth.

TikTok is collecting all the typical stuff you intentionally granted them access to, like your contacts and all the photos in your phone and any of the DMs you send, but you know and kind of expect that.

According to a Forbes article, Apple researchers announced that they “fixed a serious problem in iOS 14 […] where apps could secretly access the clipboard on users’ devices” and “TikTok seems to have been caught abusing the clipboard in a quite extraordinary way [but] that TikTok didn’t stop this invasive practice back in April as promised after all.” This is one example of the app saying they’re doing one thing and then it being out-ed that they’re doing another thing, sometimes long after they’ve said they weren’t doing that thing.

Meanwhile, research from a German data protection website has revealed that TikTok installs browser trackers on your device and these track all your activities on the internet.

And as Business Insider confirms, TikTok “has a history of security infractions.” For example, TikTok has been accused of collecting biometric data from minors without their consent, and [their parent company] ByteDance agreed to pay $92 million to settle a class action lawsuit over data privacy claims in the US. 

Brendan Carr, the commissioner for the Federal Communications Commission – or what the cool kids like us call the FCC – has cited several incidents as evidence that TikTok has been dodgy about its data collection practices, and is said “to collect “everything”, from search and browsing histories; keystroke patterns; biometric identifiers—including faceprints, something that might be used in “unrelated facial recognition technology”, and voiceprints—location data; draft messages; metadata; and data stored on the clipboard, including text, images, and videos.”

TikTok always seems to be able to explain these practices. For instance, concerning their tracking of keystroke patterns, they’ve told CNN that “it’s not logging what you’re typing. It’s an anti-fraud measure that checks the rhythm of the way people are typing to ensure it’s not a bot or some other malicious activity.”

A user on Reddit used reverse engineering to figure out more about TikTok and is said to have discovered that TikTok collects all kinds of information, including:

• Your smartphone’s hardware (CPU type, hardware IDs, screen size, dpi, memory usage, storage space, etc.);

• Other apps installed on your device;

• Network information (IP, local IP, your router’s MAC address, your device’s MAC address, the name of your Wi-Fi network);

• Location data, through an option that’s turned on automatically when you give a post a location tag (only happens on some versions of TikTok);

Additionally, the Reddit user says, the app creates a local proxy server on your device, which is officially used for “transcoding media”. However, this is done without any form of authentication, making it susceptible to misuse.

Let’s be clear, though, that a lot of this same information is also collected by Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms, and these companies aren’t without their own legislative problems when it comes to data misuse. Furthermore, according to a researcher for the Washington Post, “in some ways, TikTok gathers less data[than Facebook does]. In addition to most of the types of personal information we saw TikTok gathering, Facebook also tracks users across devices, and inside other apps and websites [and] it even tracks you when you’re not using Facebook and your phone is off. We didn’t see any behavior close to that in the TikTok app.”

And TikTok is very much aware of these problems, or at least, is aware of the public relations problems and consumer trust issues it causes. As Albert Calamug, who work on the US security policy for TikTok, has stated: “We know we are among the most scrutinized platforms from a security standpoint. We aim to remove any doubt about the security of US user data.” It also appears that they are working on storing all of its US-based user data in Oracle’s cloud service, whereas it had previously been stored in the US with a backup in Singapore, but it says it plans on eventually deleting this personal information from its data centers.

And I’ll be honest – I don’t know what to think about the whole Chinese-owned element of it because, I mean… it gets all-too-easy to go down a stoner type rabbit hole and be like “but hey man, have you thought about how all our devices are made in China, man?” and I don’t have enough tin foil to make the number of hats necessary to be about that life.

At this point, though, you may be thinking, “OK, Lanie, so if TikTok is comparably invasive and exploitative to what Meta is doing with Facebook and Instagram, why did you delete and uninstall TikTok but you kept your Instagram account?” As always, you ask the best questions, boss, and the core answer to this one is simple: I’m not good enough at social media to be on 2 platforms at once so I’ve chosen to stick to being exploited by just one entity at a time, please and thank you.

Because Meta – who is the parent company to Facebook and Instagramwas caught just this month violating Apple’s privacy policies as well as some state and federal laws using a loophole that would allow them to track Facebook users’ online activity and communications with external third-party websites without their consent by injecting JavaScript code into those sites. So this definitely isn’t me choosing the lesser of two evils – I’m quite clear that either choice is as malicious as all-get-out.

What made me chose Instagram over TikTok? Because the discoverability on TikTok is a huge advantage right now so why would I be so willing to give that up? A few reasons:

1) The comments on TikTok were a little more extra than I was prepared for or used to. I posted one video where two people I didn’t know started fighting in the comments – like, jugual-on-jugular attacks – and I was like, “am I supposed to intervene here?” I had no idea how to moderate what had devolved into a straight up war in my own comments. I also would receive some very weird feedback that I’ve never experienced on Instagram like, “good information but it’s too bad you’re really annoying” and it’s like… ummm, thanks? What am I supposed to do with that?

And I “get” that comments like this happen but I had so much more of it over on TikTok than I ever did on Instagram so one point for the less troll-y option.

2) There’s also some “sunk cost” calculations. I’ve been on Instagram a lot longer and I kind of tend to think that Meta will figure this out, maybe? I can’t help but believe in the “old guard” way of seeing things where Meta will still be around in 10 years – they’ll figure out how to adapt and stay relevant – and maybe TikTok will go the Vine and Periscope route, maybe? I really don’t know and I’m waxing a whole lot, but I can’t help but think that if I take a long-term vision and approach to where I want to invest my social media time, Instagram feels like the right choice. Maybe, question mark?

3) Something I do feel a little more confident about, though, is the say that I have with my privacy settings on Instagram versus TikTok: there are just more options and what appears to be active consent with Instagram than there currently are with TikTok.

For instance, “when TikTok asks whether you want personalized advertisements, your only option is clicking a large button with “accept”. If you don’t want personalized ads, you’ll have to go to your settings and change it there. In practice, many users won’t take the time to do this or even know it’s an option. To top it all off, this specific setting is disabled by default, tempting you to turn it on and making it seem as if you turned it off already. This way, many people will unknowingly allow for their data to be used for personalized ads.” (VPN Overview) I also felt personally annoyed at how often they asked me to import my contact list. Like, no is no, gnome-saying?

4) Likewise, my face screws up a bit when I think of some of the censorship I’ve seen happen on the platform. Now, I do believe a little censorship is necessary to keep these spaces friendly, but the accounts I’ve seen shut down, the keywords I’ve seen people get profiles cancelled for, I’m just not here for it. For instance, there’s a drag queen @callher6 that I love to watch and she’s had her account and her lives shut down I don’t know how many times and I follow this person – she’s not offending anyone, she’s not engaging in harmful behaviour – and yet someone reports her putting on make-up with some old school Madonna playing in the background and her whole profile gets cancelled. There are article from Time and NPR along these same lines but instead of LGBTQIA+ content, these articles highlight how Black creators and Black voices are being suppressed so it’s definitely not just “am I seeing this right?” thing.

5) I also tend to side with an article I read on the Verge recently that the TL;DR for is that TikTok has kind of peaked for creators and marketers are about to ruin everything. All the articles I’m referencing in this episode are available if you click through to the post and you can read up on this or anything I reference for yourself, but the article provides a lot of examples as to how we saw this happen on other platforms like Instagram, and how the balance between keeping space for creators and space for distribution is incredibly challenging and necessary to ongoing growth and use. It’s an interesting read called “How platforms turn boring” if you want to search it out yourself as well.

And finally (and probably most importantly) is this:

6) I’m not consistent enough with my social media performance to believe it’ll do me or OMGrowth any good to spread myself thin across multiple platforms. Maybe if I did a better job at showing up on Instagram, it would be worth it for me to also be on TikTok, but I’m not and there’s no sense failing in two places where I could invest that energy doing OK at one.

It’s something I repeat over and over and over again to my students in the Membership To Get Data-Driven – probably because I need to hear it at least as much as anyone else does! – but if you’re really going to improve your performance and optimize your results, you have to focus on just one thing, one strategy, one campaign at a time. Once that’s going well on a consistent and semi-automated basis, you can add to what’s already working.

I want to do and be so much better at how I’m showing up but it’s not by trying to be in all the places at once that I’ll thrive at any of them so I’m taking my own advice on this one.

So yeah, TikTok is collecting a lot of personal information but so is any other social media platform you’re using and Tik Tok may not even be THE worst. According to CNBC, YouTube tracks the most data of all the social media platforms, although it doesn’t share your data outside of Google the way TikTok is said to be sharing your data.

But the point is that when you agree to using these free services, it’s because YOU are the product. Whether you’re creating content for the platform or just consuming it, our existence and our personal information is what their business model is and how it is monetized – WE are what is monetized. If that makes you uncomfortable, you don’t have to use these platforms to market yourself; I know plenty of people doing incredibly well with businesses that use little to no social media presence, relying instead on Search Engine Optimization (or what the cool kids call SEO) and relationship-building.

Consider this episode your permission slip to sit back and be honest about how YOU feel about the tools you’re using. Forget about the FOMO and where anyone else tells you that you need to be if you’re going to be successful in 2023, and do you, boss! Your people will connect with that.

Talk soon, baiiieeee!