For “at least a year,” TikTok tracked and categorized users who watched gay content, information that could then be viewed by employees on a dashboard, former TikTok workers told The Wall Street Journal.
The sources, some of whom had also worked for other companies in the tech industry, told the outlet that access to the dashboard was unusual when compared to other platforms.
Data privacy has long been a controversial topic for the short-form video platform, and government agencies remain concerned over whether U.S. user data could end up in the hands of TikTok’s owner, Beijing-based ByteDance. However, the spokesperson added that no U.S. user data has been handed over to the Chinese government.
Although the short-form video app does not ask users to disclose sexual orientation, TikTok categorizes individuals based on the videos they watch — prompting the platform to then recommend videos in the same realm of one’s viewing patterns.
Related: Auburn University in Alabama Banned TikTok on School Wifi and University Devices
According to the former employees, TikTok catalogs videos into “clusters,” with some named things like “white collar male,” “alt female,” and “mainstream female.” Within each cluster are subcategories. For example, “alt female” may include videos related to tattoos, lesbian content, and simply “Portland,” the former employees told WSJ.
The former employees told the outlet that some workers felt that the data was safe to collect because viewing certain content doesn’t necessarily confirm aspects of one’s identity, while others believed the cataloging of users based on content consumed was enough to infer sensitive information about a user, especially regarding sexuality.
Related: TikTok Will Pay $92M to Settle Lawsuit Over Personal Data ‘Theft’
The cluster system was unsettling to some workers, and TikTok removed the names and replaced them with numbers in 2021. As for the dashboard, a spokesperson told the outlet that it was deleted a year ago, and user data was moved to the company’s U.S. unit, where a much smaller group of authorized employees can access it.
Related: TikTok CEO Testifies in House Hearing: We Are Building ‘Firewall’ Around U.S. Data
Entrepreneur has reached out to TikTok for comment.
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