As of February of this year, the popular social media app TikTok has seen more than one billion downloads globally, and is used by roughly one in every eight adults aged 18 - 24 in the United States. Developed by the Chinese company Bytedance, the app has come under fire for its data collection practices, with its developer agreeing to pay a $5.7 million settlement as a result of illegally collecting personal information from children under the age of 13.

With the United States government opening a national security review of the company’s practices on Nov. 1, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee has joined the ranks of representatives calling for action, writing a letter to Alex Zhu of TikTok Inc. expressing her concerns.

“TikTok is China’s best detective - surreptitiously collecting and sharing user data, tracking American tweens and teenagers, and manipulating children’s online purchases,” Blackburn wrote in the letter. “Children are vulnerable to being solicited to buy and send emojis in exchange for favors, such as live video chats and giving out personal phone numbers, without parental permission. This has become a disturbingly popular trend.”

Available on both Apple and Android-based platforms, TikTok allows for users to create and share short videos with other users, which are often comedy or lip-sync videos.

As leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Tech Task Force, Blackburn has often been critical of the current landscape of social media apps, particularly in regards to data collection practices.

“American parents are woefully unaware of the extent to which their children are being exposed to invasive data collection practices while using TikTok,” Blackburn wrote. “Despite widespread calls for greater transparency, TikTok does not disclose the age demographics of its user base."

"According to an October 2019 Forbes report, 41% of active users in the U.S. are between the ages of 16 and 24, making TikTok one of the most dominant ways to target young users. TikTok masterfully deploys advanced technological tools such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and facial recognition in order to increase time spent on its platform and capture the attention of American youth.”

At the end of her letter addressed to Zhu, Blackburn requested responses to six questions be answered by Nov. 26. Those questions are as follows:

  • How many American children under the age of 18 are using TikTok, broken down by each age group?
  • How much revenue has TikTok generated from American customers over the past five years for in app emoji purchases, and what percentage of that revenue was from children under the age of 18?
  • What efforts has TikTok taken to require parental consent for minors to use its app, and what safeguards does TikTok have in place to ensure that parents of minors are aware of and consenting to each emoji purchase on TikTok? 
  • How is the version of TikTok for children ages 12 and under different from the version for users ages 13 and up?
  • To which third party providers does TikTok share information that is collected from child users under the age of 13 and teenage users ages 13 to 17?

To read the letter in its entirety, click here.

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