Tik Tok’s $92 million settlement, limiting what companies can do with our data

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By: George Alarcon

The popular social media app, “TikTok”, recently agreed to a $92 million settlement. TikTok was initially released in September 2016,[1] but became increasingly popular in early 2020 during the pandemic. The premise of the app is to make short video clips that can take form in a variety of ways. The videos tend to range from simple internet dances to people discussing their political views. In 2020, during the peak of the pandemic, TikTok was ranked as the third fastest-growing brand, behind only Zoom and Peacock.[2] Like most social media apps, Tik Tok has been the subject of a lot of criticism revolving around data tracking and the spread of misinformation.[3]

In 2020, the United States began making efforts to potentially prevent the use of the app altogether, due to alleged connections between the app and Chinese data collection efforts. To accomplish this, President Trump banned all digital transactions between ByteDance, the Chinese-based company responsible for TikTok, and the United States.[4] Later, the executive order was modified to give Tik Tok 90 days to move business transactions out of the United States or to sell TikTok to an American-based business. However, ByteDance and Tik Tok users began filing lawsuits to challenge the legality of the executive order, which prevented the ban from being put into full effect. President Biden would later remove the executive order in 2021, but a series of investigations into the security threats TikTok poses had already begun.

The majority of privacy concerns surrounding TikTok are due to its artificial intelligence (AI) technology that tracks users’ preferences in order to recommend TikTok videos. These recommended videos will appear on the user’s “For you” page, along with the most recent and trending Tik Tok videos. How the AI works and is able to effectively determine consumers’ preferences is still unknown, which has prompted backlash from privacy advocates, politicians, and the United States government.[5] The secrecy involving Tik Tok’s AI technology is what gave rise to a series of class action lawsuits around the country. The first case filed against Tik Tok was in California, Hong v. ByteDance, Inc.,[6] where plaintiffs alleged that the social media app used the video cameras on phones to collect, retain, and distribute App users’ facial recognition information or other biometric information without the users’ authorization, which was a violation of consumers privacy rights. Further concerns were also raised over whether Tik Tok was sending the data it was collecting to third parties. Following this initial lawsuit against TikTok, many others followed, which led the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (“JPML”) to consolidate all related complaints, giving birth to the class action lawsuit against TikTok. [7]

The class action lawsuit has two separate classes of claimants within the complaint, (1) the Nation Wide class that encompasses everyone who used the app in the United States prior to preliminary approval of the settlement and (2)  the Illinois subclass which comprises all of the Illinois residents who created a video on Tik Tok prior to the preliminary approval of the settlement. The Nationwide class claims that Tik Tok violated the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”)[8] by collecting private data on user devices without getting their express permission or authorization. Similarly, the Illinois class claims that TikTok violated Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (“BIPA”), which requires that companies collecting biometric information, such as retina scans, finger prints, face scans, and other measurements related to human characteristics, must inform the user in writing about the purpose of collecting the data, inform them how long the data will be kept, and obtain consent from the user.[9] Under the same Illinois law, Facebook was also forced to enter a settlement for $650 million in February 2020. [10] Similarly, to avoid litigation, TikTok decided to enter a settlement with both classes in the lawsuit for $92 million and agreed to a series of injunctive remedies that aim to prevent privacy violations in the future.[11]

While concerns over how companies are using consumer data have been in the spotlight of political debate since the creation of large social media platforms, companies are still continuously collecting data on consumer preferences with every interaction they have on the internet. Moreover, how companies exchange this data with one another is become increasingly concerning and demands heightened scrutiny over what companies are allowed to get away with. Through the usage of data collection and manipulation, companies are able to use targeted advertisements not only to increase their profit margins but also possibly influence major democratic processes. The usage of targeting political advertisement by campaigns on streaming services is becoming increasingly more prevalent every year.

The fact that TikTok is a foreign-based company continuously collecting data on over 89 million Americans each year is even more alarming.[12] Foreign countries in the past have already faced scrutiny for using social media as a tool to affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.[13] However, this influence required a significant amount of work and even some hacking to gain access to the needed data. In the context of TikTok, it wouldn’t require any hacking due to consumers just openly handing over their data to the company. Moreover, the data TikTok is collecting is extremely personal, biometric information that can reveal intimate details of a person's life and biological makeup. TikTok has not revealed what they plan to do with the data, why they collect biometric data, how long they intend to store it, and who they are planning to share it with. In order to combat this, more states should adopt laws like Illinois that require companies to report how and why they are collecting the data. These limitations will force companies like TikTok to be more accountable in the future for the data they collect and share about consumers. Hopefully, this will give consumers more recourse over what companies do with their private information.

[1] Joe Tidy, BBC, "TikTok: The story of a social media giant" August 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53640724.

[2] The Morning Consultant, “THE FASTEST GROWING BRANDS OF 2020", January 2021.

[3] Johana Bhuiyan, The Guardian, "TikTok has become a global giant. The US is threatening to rein it in" October 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/oct/30/tiktok-regulation-data-privacy-china.

[4] Forbes, "Is A TikTok Ban In The United States Possible?" November 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/qai/2022/11/03/is-a-tiktok-ban-in-the-united-states-possible/?sh=173beab7eaa8.

[5] In Re TikTok, Inc., Consumer Privacy, Master Docket No. 20 C 4699, 2022.

[6] Hong v. ByteDance, Inc., No. 19 C 7792 (N.D. Cal.).

[7] In Re TikTok, Inc., Consumer Privacy, Master Docket No. 20 C 4699, 2022.

[8] 18 U.S.C. § 1030.

[9] 740 Ill. Comp. Stat. 14/5(b).

[10] Megan Sauer, CNBC. "Some TikTok users are receiving $167 checks over data privacy violations—and Google and Snapchat could be next" October 2022.

[11]  In Re TikTok, Inc., Consumer Privacy, Master Docket No. 20 C 4699, 2022

[12] Megan Sauer, CNBC. "Some TikTok users are receiving $167 checks over data privacy violations—and Google and Snapchat could be next" October 2022

[13] Young Mie Kim, Brennan Center, "New Evidence Shows How Russia’s Election Interference Has Gotten More Brazen" March 2020