TikTok accused of using Android loophole to track users

Smartphone with TikTok opening screen on it in front of an American flag

TikTok allegedly exploited an Android loophole to collect the MAC addresses of devices to track users online, according to a new analysis by The Wall Street Journal.

The popular video-sharing platform is accused of violating Google Play's guidelines and taking advantage of a loophole in Android in order to collect and track users’ MAC addresses - the 12-digit combination which connects a mobile device to the internet.

They are especially useful to advertisers because of their permanent nature, making it possible to track the behaviour of a user and build a profile based on their habits.

The Google Play Store banned apps from collecting “persistent device identifiers”, such as MAC addresses, without explicit user consent in 2015.

However, TikTok allegedly collected the data between 2018 and November 2019, when it released an update to its app. The Wall Street Journal estimates that it tracked users’ MAC addresses for at least 15 months, sending the collected data to its parent company ByteDance’s servers.

In spite of this, the analysis found that TikTok had not collected any unusual amount of user information and said it managed to disclose what data was being collected in its privacy policy.

In a statement given to IT Pro, TikTok said it is "committed to protecting the privacy and safety of the TikTok community

"We constantly update our app to keep up with evolving security challenges, and the current version of TikTok does not collect MAC addresses, the TikTok spokesperson added. "We have never given any US user data to the Chinese government nor would we do so if asked. We always encourage our users to download the most current version of TikTok."

Google told The Wall Street Journal that it is currently investigating the matter.

The allegations could play a significant role in TikTok’s already-threatened presence in the US. Last week, Donald Trump signed an executive order against TikTok and WeChat amid concerns about security, government interference, and a growing trade war.

The order against TikTok claims that the platform threatens national security via the information it collects on users. TikTok said it was "shocked" by the order and would "pursue all remedies available," suggesting legal action may ensue. Until now, there was not much proof that TikTok was in any way tracking users’ data.

However, the analysis by The Wall Street Journal presents evidence which could significantly weigh on the company’s future.

Sabina Weston

Having only graduated from City University in 2019, Sabina has already demonstrated her abilities as a keen writer and effective journalist. Currently a content writer for Drapers, Sabina spent a number of years writing for ITPro, specialising in networking and telecommunications, as well as charting the efforts of technology companies to improve their inclusion and diversity strategies, a topic close to her heart.

Sabina has also held a number of editorial roles at Harper's Bazaar, Cube Collective, and HighClouds.