Through a searchable dashboard, TikTok monitored which users watched LGBTQ-related content and categorized them as gay.
Former TikTok employees reported finding an internal list of gay users on the popular app for more than a year, eventually causing the feature to be deleted, according toThe Wall Street Journal.
TikTok doesn’t ask users about their sexual orientation but catalogs videos they watch under topics like “LGBT.” According to the paper, employees could view this information through a dashboard that listed affiliated users who viewed those videos and their ID numbers — a series of numbers each TikTok user receives when they log in to the app.
Other topics in TikTok’s data set also included user lists, but the former employees did not consider them sensitive.However, when they discovered these details, it raised red flags for employees at TikTok in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
As early as 2020 and 2021, several former TikTok employees expressed concerns about this practice, fearing that employees might steal data or blackmail users.
Many social media and advertising platforms infer user characteristics based on online behavior. By doing so, they can decide what content or ads to display. But according to at least one trade association, the Network Advertising Initiative, that represents digital advertising industry members, since 2015, it’s been forbidden for members to focus on somebody based on their identity as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
Some former employees said TikTok tracked content categories and users on its app to boost engagement, according to the paper.
In addition to viewing the unique ID numbers of users associated with each cluster, or group of topics, some TikTok employees could also see a list of users watching videos in each set. Some former employees also reported that employees could find out what set each TikTok user belonged to by looking up their ID numbers when they watch videos.
Former employees also said that in 2021, TikTok executives reduced access to the dashboard due to concerns that employees had too much access to its data.
As a result of concerns over Chinese government access to the company’s data, TikTok has come under intense scrutiny recently. The Chinese technology company ByteDance owns TikTok. The app has been banned from U.S. government systems and many state-owned devices.
TikTok says it does not share user information with the Chinese government and has not done so.