China’s TikTok Sued by U.S. College Student Over Data Use

Zheping Huang

(Bloomberg) -- A California college student has sued TikTok, the viral video service run by social media giant ByteDance Inc., for secretly funneling her personal information to China while using her videos to create an online profile for targeted ads.

The lawsuit, filed last week in the Northern District of California by full-time university student Misty Hong, alleges TikTok harvested her videos, gathered personally identifiable info, then transferred that information to servers in ByteDance’s home country. TikTok did so without her consent, her lawyers said in a filing that didn’t provide evidence to back up the allegations.

ByteDance, the world’s most valuable startup, has come under fire in recent months from American politicians and its mainly teen users alike. U.S. lawmakers have expressed concern about the app’s growing popularity. Officials are reviewing whether ByteDance’s $1 billion acquisition of startup Musical.ly two years ago, which created TikTok, poses a national security risk. And more recently, TikTok ignited a furor for suspending -- then restoring -- the account of New Jersey teenager Feroza Aziz for posting a series of videos that rebuked China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims. The company later blamed a “human moderation error.” A ByteDance representative had no immediate comment on the lawsuit.

“TikTok’s lighthearted fun comes at a heavy cost,” the lawyers said in the filing. “TikTok unjustly profits from its secret harvesting of private and personally-identifiable user data by, among other things, using such data to derive vast targeted-advertising revenues and profits.”

Read more: TikTok Music-Video App Is Said to Get National Security Review

TikTok, an app known for everything from teenage twerking to singing gummy bears, has taken off among U.S. teens but become a lightning rod for criticism as tensions rise between the U.S. and China over trade and technology. One of the few Chinese internet services to catch on globally, it’s has been installed by around 564 million users so far this year and about 1.45 billion times since launching. New U.S. users grew 38% to 11.6 million in the third quarter, according to Sensor Tower, up from 8.4 million a year earlier.

It’s now a bona fide rival to Facebook and Instagram. Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg sounded the alarm during a speech at Georgetown University in Washington in October, saying that while WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging app his company owns, is used around the world by protesters and others who need free speech protections, TikTok doesn’t offer that.

In the lawsuit, Hong accuses the app of violations of privacy, data fraud and unfair competition.

“TikTok clandestinely has vacuumed up and transferred to servers in China vast quantities of private and personally-identifiable user data that can be employed to identify, profile and track the location and activities of users in the United States now and in the future,” her lawyers wrote in the filing.

Read more: TikTok Revamps Lobbying as Washington Targets Chinese Ownership

To contact the reporter on this story: Zheping Huang in Hong Kong at zhuang245@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peter Elstrom at pelstrom@bloomberg.net, Edwin Chan, Colum Murphy

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