While the Indian government may have banned TikTok from the country over geopolitical tensions, the vertical-scrolling behemoth and its Chinese parent company ByteDance still have access to the sensitive data of nearly 150 million Indian users who were using the app before the ban.
An investigation by Forbes revealed internal programs used by both TikTok and ByteDance that can put together data about past TikTok users in India. An employee doesn’t need to have elevated access to these programs either, just basic access itself is enough.
A second anonymous source also independently confirmed that Indian users’ data is still accessible despite the app being banned in 2020.
One example of such a tool is a social mapping program that can fetch a list of any public or private user’s closest connections on TikTok with personally identifiable information about them, still using profiles from India.
Staff members at these companies just need to know the account’s unique identifier (UID) to fetch TikTok usernames, first and last names of friends and acquaintances, their residential region as well as how they share TikTok content with contacts and users across other social media platforms.
This UID can further be used to pull even more sensitive data, including search behaviour. A current TikTok employee in conversation with Forbes jokingly called this tool “NSA-To-Go”.
The employee further added that anyone with basic access to company tools can look up the closest contacts and other sensitive information about any user.
While TikTok maintains that it “steadfastly complied” and continues to remain in full compliance with the Indian Government’s ban, the actual ban itself seems to be more focused on blocking public access to TikTok in the country. It leaves out any calls for deleting app data that was already captured and stored by then, which the then TikTok India head Nikhil Gandhi said that TikTok had not shared with any government, including the Chinese.
This resulted in the already captured data of Indian users staying with TikTok. While the platform hasn’t shared just how many Indian users were using the app before it got banned in 2019, data analytics firm Sensor Tower puts this estimate at 150 million monthly active users.
The news of such a powerful internal tool becoming public isn’t good news for TikTok, especially considering the platform’s already being threatened with a blanket ban by the Biden administration as a solution to national security concerns about China potentially spying on Americans.
Outside of India and the US, the tool is still a rather problematic thing in terms of world geopolitics. For example, the tool has data on Russian and Ukrainian users, including who they communicate with on the app.
While there’s no instance of this tool or any other equivalent program being used against another country, the fact that this information exists in the hands of a company is quite dangerous.
Additionally, ByteDance has been previously known to spy on people. A December investigation by Forbes revealed that the company tracked multiple journalists, including their IP addresses to find out which of its employees may have been in touch with them and leaking internal company information. This has led to increased fears of TikTok spying on Americans prompting an investigation by the FBI and Justice Department into the matter.
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