TikTok is again being accused of illegally processing children’s personal data.
The latest claim has been brought by Anne Longfield, the former children’s commissioner for England, who is suing the video-sharing app on behalf of 3.5 million children in the UK.
She alleges that TikTok is violating the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) by collecting excessive data and failing to explain what it’s used for.
Children’s data is subject to special protections under the GDPR, including the requirement that privacy policies must be written in a way that’s understandable to the service’s target audience.
Today I’m launching a legal claim against @tiktok_uk on behalf of millions of children whose data was illegally taken and transferred to unknown third parties for profit. Learn more about our fight to protect children's privacy @TikTokClaimUK for updates https://t.co/eSCxj4Jwql pic.twitter.com/LBvNHq7Oth— Anne Longfield (@annelongfield) April 21, 2021
What is TikTok being accused of?
Longfield believes that TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, is being “deliberately opaque” about who has access to its users’ personal data.
The lawsuit notes that TikTok collects vast amounts of data from users, which is not necessarily used for the service itself but by advertisers.
Longfield said that TikTok’s data collection practices were “hidden” and “shady”, adding:
In terms of what they take, there are addresses, names, date of birth information, their likes, their interests, who they follow, their habits – all of these – the profiling stuff, but also the exact geolocation, that is very much outside what would be deemed appropriate.
You shouldn’t be doing that when it’s kids.
Separately, there are concerns that TikTok isn’t doing enough to regulate who is using the app. The company’s UK policies state that users must be 13 or older to use the app – which is in line with domestic data protection laws regarding the age at which someone is no longer a minor.
However, according to Ofcom, 44% of children aged 8 to 12 in the UK have a TikTok account.
In 2019, TikTok received a $5.7 million (£4.3 million at the time) fine from the US’s Federal Trade Commission for a similar offence, and it was ordered to implement stronger age verification measures.
Unfortunately, that’s difficult to do without requesting further sensitive information, such as a passport, which many children won’t have access to.
Regulating social media
These logistical issues are a problem shared by most social networking platforms, but as a relative newcomer on the social media scene, TikTok is only just beginning to reach the watchful eye of regulators and privacy activists.
This lawsuit follows a statement from the European Consumer Group urging regulators to take action against TikTok.
“In just a few years, TikTok has become one of the most popular social media apps with millions of users across Europe. But TikTok is letting its users down by breaching their rights on a massive scale,” the group’s director general, Monique Goyens, said.
“Children love TikTok but the company fails to keep them protected. We do not want our youngest ones to be exposed to pervasive hidden advertising and unknowingly turned into billboards when they are just trying to have fun,” she added.
TikTok has continually defended the way it processes children’s personal data. In response to the European Consumer Group’s comments, a spokesperson said that it had taken several steps to protect users, including its requirement that users must be 13 or older to join.
The organisation reiterated that claim following Longfield’s lawsuit, saying: “Privacy and safety are top priorities for TikTok and we have robust policies, processes and technologies in place to help protect all users, and our teenage users in particular.
“We believe the claims lack merit and intend to vigorously defend the action.”