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U.S. Class-Action Lawsuit Claims TikTok Steals Kids' Data and Sends It to China

Time:   04.09.2020
U.S. Class-Action Lawsuit Claims TikTok Steals Kids' Data and Sends It to China

U.S. Class-Action Lawsuit Claims TikTok Steals Kids' Data and Sends It to China

According to NPR, U.S. Families are suing TikTok in what has turned into a major legal action in federal court.

Dozens of minors, through their parents, are alleging that the video-sharing app collects information about their facial characteristics, locations and close contacts, and quietly sends that data to servers in China.

Twenty separate but similar federal lawsuits were filed over the past year on behalf of TikTok users in California, where the company has offices, and Illinois, which requires that technology companies receive written consent before collecting data on a person's identity. The suits now have been merged into one.

While TikTok flatly denies the allegations, the company is under intense pressure to avoid a long, drawn-out legal battle. The Trump administration considers TikTok a national security threat because its parent company, ByteDance, is based in China. President Trump said Monday that TikTok must be sold to an American suitor by Sept. 15 or "close down" in the United States. Microsoft Corp., for one, has acknowledged it is exploring a bid.

TikTok is fighting to have the privacy lawsuit dismissed. But if it survives, the suit could cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars.

TikTok said its primary servers for its U.S. users are in Virginia and its backup servers are in Singapore. The company said no data collected on Americans ever goes to servers or authorities in China.

But that contradicts the findings of technology experts hired by the plaintiffs' attorneys. Those experts, who studied the collection and journey of TikTok data, claim troves of information are being sent to servers in China "under the control of third-parties who cooperate with the Chinese government," according to the lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, they contend that as soon as TikTok is downloaded, it starts collecting data, even before a user opens an account. If a user begins making a video but then does not save it, data in the video is still mined by TikTok, according to the suit. Even when TikTok is merely on a phone but not being used, it is still allegedly vacuuming up loads of personal data. It is a practice, the suit argues, that violates the law by not receiving the consent of users.

TikTok denies that any of its data collection starts before users agree to its terms of service. TikTok is upfront about what data it takes from users. Experts said most smartphone apps collect and store just as much — or more — data as TikTok does.

Attorneys for TikTok said the app is neither capturing users' biometric information nor sending any data to China. But TikTok's legal team also argues that the company can transfer data to Beijing, if it so chooses, without breaking any laws.

TikTok's legal team said the lawsuit is based on a "factually mistaken" analysis of how the app collects data and what it is doing with that data. But worse than that, according to TikTok lawyer Weibell, is that the suit is China-phobic in the same way many U.S. politicians and Silicon Valley tech giants are, he argues.