During a hearing by the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, multiple senators questioned the company about this matter. Although the hearing was intended to focus on the negative effects of social media on children and teens it often expanded to include other areas of concern as lawmakers looked into business models, internal research and the policies made by Snap, TikTok, and YouTube.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (Republican-TN) specifically asked why TikTok needed to collect a variety of biometric information such as voiceprints and faceprints, search history and geolocation information, keystroke patterns, and rhythms.
TikToks Head of Public Policy Michael Beckerman, TikToks Vice President and Head of VP, responded to the question by noting that outside experts and researchers have examined its policy and discovered that TikTok collects less data that its social media peers. (He later clarified that keystroke patterns were collected to stop spam bots infiltrating the service.
Blackburn continued to inquire if TikTok was creating a complete profile, or virtual dossier, on all its users, including younger children and teens. This included biometric data, as well as their interests and search histories.
Beckerman resisted answering this question, saying that TikTok was an entertainment platform where users can watch, enjoy, and create short-form videos. It's all about entertaining and uplifting content.
Although the senator's questioning was confusing at times, she once called this dossier a virtual person. However, it is worth noting that today we don't have an accurate picture of TikTok's use of the data it collects. This includes, as per TikToks 2020 blog, how some of that data is used in its recommendation algorithms. TikToks policy chief evaded questions about its plans to collect biometric information regarding minor users.
Beckerman was asked by Senator Cynthia Lummis (R.W.Y.) if mass data collection was necessary in order to provide a high-quality TikToks experience. She pointed out that the company's policy allowed the collection of the person's location, device model, browsing history, outside and inside TikTok, all messages sent to TikTok, their IP address and biometric data.
Beckerman replied that some of the items you have listed are not currently being collected.
Although it was not immediately apparent, it is likely that his statements were in reference to the biometric data collection clause. TikTok declined in June to explain the product developments that required the addition of biometric information to its disclosures regarding the information it automatically collects about users. TechCrunch was told that the company would seek user consent if such data collection practices were to be implemented.
According to the senator, TikTok would be contacted regarding this question by the committee.
Given TikTok's parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, both senators were concerned about TikToks connections to China. The issue of excessive collection of user data, especially with respect to minors and children, is not a geopolitical problem or a national security risk, as Trump claimed. Transparency is key.
Security and privacy experts agree that users need to understand the reasons a company collects data and what it does with it. They should also have the right not to share the data. Users can limit data collection in some ways today by disallowing access their smartphones sensors or other features. Apple, for instance, offers opt-outs in its mobile operating system iOS. This pops up consent boxes whenever an app asks to access your location or microphone, camera, or contacts.
Apps can also track more data, even if these items are not being used.
Lummis wanted to know whether TikTok was built with the aim of keeping users engaged as long as possible. This type of metric could be greatly enhanced if there is a wealth of user data.
Beckerman replied that the apps have reminders to take a rest and parental controls for managing screen time.
Lummis stated that she wanted to find out if the length of engagement was a measure used by the company to determine success.
Beckerman dodged the question again, noting that there are multiple definitions for success and it is not based solely on how much time someone spends [using the app]].
Lummis repeated the question two more times, while Beckerman continued to avoid answering directly. He said that overall engagement is more important that the amount of time spent.
Lummis asked if it was one of the metrics.
Beckerman stated that it is a metric that many platforms use to measure how much time users spend on their app.