The Reality of Social Media Data Tracking

Social media platform audiences have seen immense growth over the past two decades, with 58% (4.6 billion people) of the global population now being active social media users. With all these people online, data privacy and information security have never been more of a concern. Social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, and more recently, TikTok, are constructed to collect as much personal data from the user as possible with the implication that this data is used solely for algorithmic purposes that improve the user experience (UX). Unfortunately, this does not always hold true. In addition to enhancing UX, the excess collection of data enables the companies running these platforms to “micro-target” users, wield monopolistic power, and even sell this data to third parties to be used however they see fit.

The use and misuse of user data by social media companies is only one of many commonly known concerns. Repositories and massive data banks are also vulnerable to hackers if they aren’t protected with adequate security measures and access restrictions. The ramifications of this can range from phishing attempts and identity theft, to malware sharing and demanding ransom for the return of stolen sensitive information.

Facebook has seen the most backlash in recent years concerning online data protection. In 2019, the FTC imposed a record-breaking $5 billion penalty and enforced new privacy restrictions on Facebook. This is the most significant penalty ever imposed on any company for violating consumers’ privacy. FTC Chairman, Joe Simons, explained that “despite repeated promises to its billions of users worldwide that they could control how their personal information is shared, Facebook undermined consumers’ choices.” The FTC found that Facebook, by deceptively wording their privacy settings, gave users the false impression that they were able to control the privacy of their information.

Although Facebook is one of the largest firms to ever engage in and receive punishment for their capitalization on private user data, there is a newer, more ominous contender that needs to be addressed: TikTok. A recent study conducted by URL Genius found that of all social media apps, YouTube and TikTok track the most personal data. YouTube, owned by Google parent Alphabet, primarily collects user data for the app’s algorithm to deliver more personalized content and advertisements. Ten of YouTube’s fourteen contact trackers were found to be first-party trackers, meaning this data was being used within the YouTube organization and not sold to third parties. The other four contact trackers were from third-party domains that were allowed to collect data and track user activity for unknown purposes.

On the other hand, TikTok - owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance - had 14 tracking contacts, 13 of which were from third parties. Of greater concern, evidence shows that data is still collected even when users have opted out of allowing tracking in TikTok’s app settings. As the authors of the URL Genius report stated that “consumers are unable to see what data is shared with third-party networks, or how their data will be used.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop here. According to recent research from Felix Krause, an ex-Google developer, TikTok has the capabilities to monitor every tap on your screen, even keystrokes on external websites. They accomplish this by installing an in-app browser into the application so that when a user clicks an advertisement or profile link, the in-app browser is deployed rather than the user’s default browse. This keeps the user within the TikTok ecosystem. These in-app browsers contain coding modifications, such as tracking-enabled code, allowing TikTok to record information on everything a user does on that browser. Other social media apps that have in-app browsers give the option to use an alternative browser such as Safari or Google Chrome, yet TikTok does not provide such an option.

With data security issues becoming more and more pervasive, the need to protect users and their data becomes increasingly important. Currently, TikTok collects a widespread array of data including location tracking, messaging, content viewing, and content created – even storing content that was never saved or uploaded for public viewing. Whether the solution to protecting users is secured by stricter privacy regulations on third-party contact tracker access, the type of data that is collected, or the use of this data, there must be stronger rules protecting people’s information from these colossal social media companies.

Jack Dager

Jack Dager

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