Does TikTok know you better than your own mother? Here’s how to request your data from the app and limit the information it compiles

The social network tracks the preferences, personal information and online behavior of millions of users

A man uses TikTok in Warsaw, Poland on March 16, 2024.NurPhoto (NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Isabel Rubio

“The one who knows you best in the world isn’t your mother or your best friend or your psychologist, it’s the TikTok algorithm, which is straight-up witchcraft,” says a user on X. The Chinese platform knows users’ personal data, but also what interests them and what does not, who their friends are and even the rhythm with which they type. During the last few years, TikTok has become a source of suspicion in the Western world due to its “data protection and collection of data by third parties.” It has even been banned among government employees of the European Union and the United States. EL PAÍS investigated which of your data TikTok collects, how you can request a copy, and what can be done to stop it from collecting certain types of information.

Any user can ask TikTok for a copy of their data. To do so, go into the application, click on “Profile” at the bottom of the screen and, under the menu button — which is represented by three horizontal lines — choose the option “Settings and Privacy.” Then, click on “Account” and on “Download your data.” Here, you can choose between “all data” or just certain “personalized data.” In the tests carried out by this publication, on some occasions the archive was immediately available for download and in others, it took two days.

Your download archive will have several folders. The best way to know what TikTok knows about you is to dive into each of them. In a so-called “profile,” the company compiles all data that the user supplies upon opening their account, from date of birth to user name, email address, telephone number, password, biography and profile photo.

TikTok also keeps track of every time a user logs into their account from any device. It knows the date, IP address, type of device, its operating system, network (3G, 4G or 5G) and its operator (the company providing the network). To collect information about the city or country where the user is located, the social network uses technical information like SIM card and IP address. If given permission, it also collects information about the approximate location of the device and its phone contacts. And not only that: the platform automatically records keystroke patterns and rhythms, as stated in its privacy policy.

Why does TikTok know its users so well?

Millions of people spend hours on TikTok, which compiles information about their every action on the social network. Saved in a folder called “Search history” is the link to every video a user has seen and the time and date it was accessed. In addition, it compiles the user’s favorite effects, sounds, hashtags and TikToks. It knows if they prefer the freckle filter, or the one that makes your head enormous, or the one that replaces the video background for another image. Not to mention, users’ musical preferences: TikTok knows if you like songs like Íñigo Quintero’s Si no estás or Marc Ambor’s Good To Be.

It also saves every video you’ve shared — within the app or through another service like WhatsApp — and every search you’ve done on the platform, like that time you looked up “presents for live music fans,” “Ruslana” or “Madrid weekend plans.” The platform keeps track of users’ interests, the language in which they prefer to see TikToks, who they interact with and if at some point they have followed or stopped following stars like Charl D’Amelio, Lola Lolita or Nuria Adraos.

Beyond the content one sees or who one interacts with, the social network also identifies and saves characteristics about each video that is posted on the platform: from hashtags to what it talks about and whether it includes objects, scenery, faces or other body parts. “We may collect this information to enable special video effects, for content moderation, for demographic classification, for content and ad recommendations, and for other non-personally-identifying operations,” says the company’s privacy policy.

If a user makes a purchase on the platform, TikTok gathers information about the transaction. For example, about the card that was used to make the purchase, billing and delivery details, contact information and the articles that were purchased. The company also keeps an exact record of user settings on the platform: if an account is private, if it allows others to send it messages, see the videos that it likes, or the TikToks it downloads, its comments, or to make duets with its content.

Using all the information it compiles, TikTok guesses the age range and sex of each user, according to its privacy policy. The company says it saves this data to be able to show users videos that will interest them, guarantee the security and wellbeing of their online community and improve its ads, “consistent with your permissions, to provide you with location-based services, such as advertising and other personalized content.”

How to limit the data that TikTok collects

Is TikTok spying on us? According to various experts consulted by EL PAÍS, it’s saving as much of our data as any other social network. A report by the organization Internet 2.0 found that TikTok does not prioritize your privacy. “Permissions and device information collection are overly intrusive and not necessary for the application to function,” it states.

There are a few tricks to avoid, as best you can, TikTok compiling more information on you. If you just want to be able to see content on the social network and share the least amount of data possible, cybersecurity company ESET recommends using the official TikTok website on a web browser. Even so, it reminds users that the company can compile certain information using the browser’s cookies and other tracking devices.

If you want to have a TikTok account so you can take advantage of all the app’s functions, it’s possible to partially restrict the data you share when you set up an account. “When you register for the first time, a good option is to use a telephone or an email address that you don’t use for anything else, instead of an account that is associated with another social network,” says ESET. That’s because third-party platforms, merchants and advertising partners provide information to TikTok about their users, according to the social network’s privacy policy.

The cybersecurity company advises users to not allow TikTok to synchronize telephone contacts or Facebook friends, and limit advertisement personalization. To do so, go to TikTok’s settings, click on “Ads” and deactivate the “Personalized ads” tab. It’s also possible to delete data from outside TikTok that merchants have shared about a user. If you wish to deactivate or activate the syncing of contacts and Facebook friends, you can do so in the “Privacy” tab within TikTok’s settings. Beyond the social network itself, in your phone’s settings, it is possible to adjust various permissions that it gives to the application. For example, if it can access location, contacts, photos, microphone and camera.

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