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Investigate Tiktok for Potentially Unlawful Surveillance Targeting Individuals

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Congress, and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States must investigate ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of social media app Tiktok, which unlawfully tracked or planned to track the physical locations of specific U.S. citizens to conduct covert surveillance, a Public Citizen said in a letter sent today.

Company documents reported on by Forbes revealed a plan for Tiktok’s Beijing team to monitor the location of specific U.S. citizens by “accessing location data from some U.S. users’ devices without their knowledge or consent.” The documents alleged that location data would be used for the express purpose of surveillance as opposed to ad targeting. Targeted individuals were not current or former employees of the company, ruling out the possibility of any kind of internal workplace review or investigation.

“If disturbing allegations in the Forbes report are substantiated, the implications of such blatant abuses of user data by a foreign company are immense,” the letter said. “This threatens a Big Brother-type surveillance that is antithetical to democratic values, may threaten individuals’ personal security, and violates the most basic societal expectations about personal privacy.”

Unauthorized location monitoring is one of the most invasive, insidious data practices imaginable, the letter notes. From this information, it is possible to determine where people live, work, pray, obtain health care, and more. While this kind of surveillance is widespread, companies seldom take interest in specific individuals.

Public Citizen is calling for an investigation that addresses the following issues:

  • Which specific surveillance practices have been contemplated, considered, or used;
  • What were the specific goals of the surveillance;
  • Whether any information gathered through the surveillance was shared with third parties, including the Chinese government, other foreign governments, other corporations, or other organizations;
  • Whether ByteDance and/or Tiktok sought to profit or develop a business line with the surveillance and sharing of information about specific individuals;
  • Whether the terms currently being negotiated by the Committee on Foreign Investment would adequately protect against such surveillance practices – including whether they could stop an American subsidiary from engaging in such practices;
  • Whether the practices described in the Forbes story are unfair and deceptive to consumers and in contravention of Federal Trade Commission Act and other laws and regulations;
  • What impacts such surveillance practices might have on children;
  • What potential threats this kind of surveillance might pose to the privacy and physical safety of targeted individuals; and
  • What potential threats it might pose to U.S. government officials, journalists, activists, foreign nationals, as well as broader considerations of national security, human rights advocacy, and democracy.

If any wrongdoing or misconduct is uncovered, the FTC must act quickly to hold Tiktok and ByteDance accountable.