It’s the popular social media app that has generated plenty of headlines over the past twelve months. This week TikTok featured on an episode of Four Corners with follow-up pieces from the ABC, Australian Financial Review, Sydney Morning Herald and The Guardian.
This time, the spotlight has been placed firmly upon TikTok’s age restrictions, its algorithm and more broadly, its user’s privacy.
TikTok’s onboarding is slick. From the moment the app finishes downloading, users are only required to navigate through two screens to get full access to content within the home and discover feeds.
By simply tapping ‘agree and continue’ (more on this later), users are taken to a brief demo that shows how to use the home feed. With a quick tap of ‘start watching’ you enter the world of TikTok.
We’ll leave the deep dive into the workings of TikTok’s algorithm to the experts. What we will say is that within ten swipes we received our first questionable piece of content, featuring a man asking Siri questions about various sexual acts. Once we had watched that piece of content, it kept flowing.
A video of two teens in bikinis, a video of a woman being slapped on the backside, a video of a man 'upskirting' a female, and a video of a man flashing a female while she was on the phone. Sure, we may have gone looking for this kind of content to prove a point, but we seemed to have a niche far quicker than we had anticipated.
Keep in mind that through all of this, we had still not been asked to confirm our date of birth. We hadn’t even been prompted to sign up.
In total: 523 paragraphs containing 874 sentences and 16,101 words. 374 sentences contain more than 30 syllables.
Here is the output:
The consent collected is questionable, as users are shown a dialogue box cleverly overlayed atop a much more interesting screen.
A child friendly video could alleviate some of the privacy risks by clearly explaining the risks versus the reward while highlighting some of the useful privacy settings available in-app.
These additions would be a welcome step toward true fairness and transparency.
TikTok does make some effort to enforce its age restrictions. In our testing, we tried to register a user with a year of birth set as 2006. We were met with a banner telling us we weren’t eligible for to create an account. After clearing the cache and trying to sign in with Facebook, Apple and Twitter we continued to receive this banner notification.
The most puzzling thing we found in our review was that after entering the ineligible date of birth, we could still access the home feed and the discover page which allows for access to all of the content on offer. We couldn’t post content or access our message inbox, but despite knowing that we did not satisfy the age restrictions, TikTok still made videos available to us.
It appears that the ineligible date of birth is stored locally (only within the app) and is not linked to the user’s Apple ID or device footprint. This means that by simply deleting and reinstalling the app we were able to circumvent this banner and enter a ‘fake’ date of birth. This satisfied the age restrictions and allowed for an account to be created.
At a minimum, the ability to still consume content must be removed once a user has been identified as ineligible to create an account. Additionally, TikTok should implement stronger measures that prevent delete and download circumvention of its age restrictions.
Even if we put aside its Chinese links and high levels of data collection, which have been refuted by senior Australian executives, TikTok is still a concerning example of failing at both privacy and safety by design.
The age controls are also extremely weak, and several measures should be implemented very rapidly to reduce some of the risk to users. Content tagging that prevents users from seeing some of the videos we found without logging in would be a good starting point.
Of course, some blame must rest upon the app stores too. Apple knows the age of its users. Date of birth is a key piece of information that is collected from its users at signup, and the fact that apps with age restrictions are even made available to children within these app stores is concerning.
Changes are long overdue. It is time for TikTok to put its users first.