TikTok dodges questions about biometric data collection at Senate hearing – TechCrunch

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In its very first congressional hearing, TikTok was able to dodge questions about what it plans to do with the biometrics its privacy policy allows it to collect from U.S. users of the app. In an update to the company’s U.S. privacy policy in June, TikTok added a new section stating that the app “may collect biometric identifiers and biometric information” from its users’ content, including things like “facial and voice prints”.

The company was questioned by several lawmakers on the matter today during a hearing led by the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security. The audience was supposed to focus on the damaging impacts of social media on children and teens, but often expanded into broader areas of concern, as lawmakers dig into business models, internal research and current policies at Snap, TikTok and YouTube.

Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) asked specifically why TikTok needed to collect a wide variety of biometric data, “such as facial prints, voice prints, geolocation information, browsing and search history” , as well as the “typing patterns and rhythms”.

Instead of answering the question directly, TikTok Vice President and Head of Public Policy Michael Beckerman responded by pointing out that many researchers and outside experts have looked at his policy and found that TikTok actually collects less data. than many of his social media peers. (He also clarified later in another round of questions that typing patterns were collected in order to prevent spam bots from infiltrating the service.)

Blackburn insisted on asking if TikTok was preparing a full profile – or “virtual record” – on each of its users, including young children and teens, that included their biometrics combined with their interests and search history.

Beckerman also deferred answering this question, saying, “TikTok is an entertainment platform where people watch, enjoy, and create short videos. This is uplifting and entertaining content.

While the Senator’s series of questions were a bit confusing at times – she once referred to this file as a ‘virtual you’, for example – it should be noted that we do not have a full picture today of what TikTok does with the data it collects from its users outside of what is described in its privacy policy and, by TikTok 2020 blog post, how some of this data plays a role in its recommendation algorithms. And given the potential to set the record straight on its plans for collecting biometric data from underage users, TikTok’s policy official sidestepped the questions.

In a follow-up line to his data collection practices led by Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), Beckerman was asked about the need for this type of ‘big data collection’ to provide a high-quality experience for people. TikTok users. She noted that company policy allowed the collection of the person’s location, device model of their phone, browsing history outside and inside TikTok, from all messages sent on TikTok, IP address and biometric data.

In response, Beckerman said that “some of these items that you have listed are things that we are not currently collecting.”

He also said that the privacy policy states that TikTok will obtain user consent if they start collecting such material in the future.

Although not immediately clear, his statements likely referred to the clause on the collection of biometric data. In June, TikTok declined to detail product developments that required the addition of biometrics to its list of disclosures about the information it automatically collects from users. But at the time, the company told TechCrunch it would seek user consent in case such data collection practices began.

The senator said the committee would follow up with TikTok on this matter.

Both senators were concerned about TikTok’s link to China, given that its parent company is Beijing-based ByteDance. But the problem of excessive collection of user data – especially in relation to children and minors – is not just a geopolitical concern or, as Trump believed, a threat to national security. It is a question of transparency.

Experts in privacy and security generally think that users should understand why a business needs the data it collects, what is done with it, and it should have the right to refuse to share that data. Today, users can limit data collection somewhat by denying access to sensors and other features of their smartphone. Apple, for example, is implementing opt-out options as part of its mobile operating system, iOS, which displays consent boxes when an app wants to access your location, microphone, camera, or phone. contacts.

But there’s a lot more data that apps can track, even when those things are blocked.

Following questions about data collection practices, Lummis also wanted to know if TikTok was designed with the goal of retaining users for as long as possible. After all, having a treasure trove of user data could greatly improve this type of measurement.

In response, Beckerman pointed to the app’s “take a break” reminders and parental controls for managing screen time.

Lummis clarified that she wanted to know if “length of engagement” was a metric the company used to define success.

Again, Beckerman sidestepped the question, noting “that there are many definitions of success” and that “it’s not just based on how much time someone spends [on the app], “

Lummis then reiterated the question several times as Beckerman continued to avoid answering directly, saying only that “overall engagement is more important than time spent.”

“But is that one of the metrics? Lummis urged.

“It’s a metric that I think a lot of platforms check out how much time people spend on the app,” Beckerman said.


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