How TikTok reads your mind – a look inside the algorithm

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TikTok, still quite new to the game, hasn’t had as much heat as its elder social media siblings when it comes to data breaches. The platform, formerly known as Musical.ly, hosts a wide variety of mini videos ranging from 15 seconds to ten minutes. Typically, the content is energetic and whimsical.

The app attracts a huge population of teenagers and young adults. According to the Global Web Index analysis, 41% of TikTok users are 16 to 24 years old. With such a number comes problems. TikTok has recently come under fire for moderation and content issues, on top of its ability to influence via a robust recommendations algorithm.

TikTok’s money is made through advertising, which combined with its recommendations algorithm, requires an alarming collection of data. Have you wondered what TikTok knows about you? How much it tracks your activity? How to prevent any of this?

We’re here to help. Below is a run-down on how it all works and what you need and needn’t worry about.

How does TikTok’s algorithm work?

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TikTok’s app’s recommendation system lives and dies on its algorithm, determining which videos will appear on the For You page. Every user’s feed is unique. The app takes into account videos you’ve liked or shared and comments you’ve posted. It also notes video data like hashtags and captions, your device and account settings.

By using machine learning-based techniques, TikTok understands what makes you tick when it comes to content, and why. Their goal, like any other social media network, is to keep you engaged for as long as possible and collect more data about what you’ve watched. “Every time you use the platform, the algorithm is updated with new data so it can understand you more precisely,” Jake Moore, cybersecurity specialist at security company ESET, says.

TikTok knows whether you’re religious, what politics you subscribe to, what causes you support and what music you listen to. It tracks your mood through content, knowing when you’ve been feeling lonely or happy.

The algorithm, if not monitored efficiently by moderators, can take you towards potentially damaging content, leading a wider problems outside of the app.

What does TikTok do to your brain?

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Numerous studies have suggested that technology effects young people’s impulse control and ability to value delayed gratification. In a possible bid to reverse the harm of this, TikTok recently bumped its maximum video length from three to ten minutes. “Short videos, like candy, provide a rush of dopamine, a feel-good chemical that’s released in the pleasure centre in our brains,” Jessica Griffin, PsyD, an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said. “That rush often leaves you wanting more - like kids in a candy store.”

A 2021 study on TikTok’s neurological effects examined how China’s TikTok equivalent, Douyin, affects Chinese college students’ brains. It found that watching personalised, algorithm-selected videos activates reward centres in the brain much more than watching random videos that haven’t been chosen specifically for the user.

Brain scans of students who regularly used the app revealed addiction-like responses, and some research subjects lacked enough self-control to stop watching. On top of the exact impacts of consuming short-form, personalised videos on a consistent basis, TikTok also presents the same challenges for young people as all other social media platforms, Griffin claimed.

This includes a drop in real-life interactions that can lead to hindered emotional and social development, as well as the risk of children being exposed to potentially upsetting or harmful information. And that the algorithm that offers them videos related to their interests may also offer them content that concern their biggest fears and concerns. “If your child has concerns about an eating disorder, anxiety, or depression, they are more likely to have more content related to those topics show up in their feed - which could provide support but has the potential to be very damaging,” Griffin said.

How is TikTok spying on you?

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TikTok has an unusual quirk in comparison to its social media siblings in that it allows random visitors to browse the app without having to sign up. The catch, though, is that it can still gather information when you arrive on the site via cookies and other trackers. Once you’ve created an account, the social network collects data about your activities and preferences based on the content you watch.

To what extent does TikTok “spy” on you? Well, the app knows the device you are using, your location, IP address, search history, the content of your messages, what you’re viewing and for how long. It also infers factors such as your age range, gender and interests based on your information alone. In the United States, TikTok can collect biometric information including face and voiceprints.

This data, naturally, is “extremely valuable” for TikTok and its advertisers, according to chief security advisor at security company SentinelOne, Morgan Wright. “If someone watches a video until the end and gives it a like, TikTok can serve up tailored ads based on that,” he says. “Capturing sentiment with this level of accuracy is harder on other platforms.”

TikTok states as per the app: “We collect certain device and network connection information when you access any of our Services. This information includes your device model, operating system, keystroke patterns or rhythms, IP address, and system language. We also collect service-related, diagnostic, and performance information, including crash reports and performance logs. We automatically assign you a device ID and user ID when you use our Platform.”

Is TikTok really taking your information?

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The privacy policy over at TikTok is straightforward: when you sign up, it’ll ask for your email address or phone number and date of birth. It collects the content you create even if you don’t save or upload it, as well as the associated metadata (when, where and who). If you sign in with Facebook, information can be shared with that social network too.

“They explain more about tracking and data collection than most other social media companies,” founder of data protection consultancy Miss IG Geek, Rowena Fielding says. “But the app employs a lot of techniques to conceal how it is functioning, which makes it difficult to work out which data is going where. The privacy policy says TikTok Ireland and UK are the joint controllers but later it also says data may be shared with the rest of the corporate group. It doesn’t really go into detail about what data and why.”

Fielding advises assuming the data being shared could be anything. For example, your profile information and content you create, contents of the clipboard, even typing patterns. “The reason given is to help develop filters and recommendations, but there are much darker uses, including behavioural profiling and targeting,” she says. “It would be extremely unusual for a for-profit business to not make for-profit uses of these things.”

TikTok also requests a number of permissions on your device. All video apps request camera and microphone access, however the privacy permissions also allow TikTok to secure detailed information about your location using GPS and other apps you’re running. Curbing these privacy permissions may limit the functionality of TikTok.

How do I stop TikTok from taking my information?

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If you want to enjoy TikTok’s full functionality, a lot of the data collection is sadly necessary. However, there are settings that allow you to switch personalised ads off. To do this, go to Me and select… to open your settings. Then go to Privacy, Safety, Personalise and data and turn the feature to Off. To request your data, go to Profile and tap … to open your settings. Go to Privacy, Personalise and Data, Download TikTok Data.

Like Instagram, TikTok allows you to set your account as private but this negatively impacts functionality. “With a private account, other users won’t be able to Duet, Stitch, or download your videos,” TikTok even warns. You can limit the audience for your videos in TikTok’s Privacy settings. But if you’re willing to take the engagement hit in order to maintain privacy, go to set your account as private, go to Me, tap …, Privacy, Turn Private Account On.

Another pro tip is to avoid linking your account to other social profiles like Facebook and Google. “Beyond that, most protection will come from careful configuration of the permissions settings on your device but these will only ever limit, rather than eliminate how much data is shared with TikTok,” says Will Richmond-Coggan, technology and privacy specialist at law firm Freeths.

Some advise using a burner email address with a different name when you sign up, along with a VPN to help hide your location. Saying this, platforms such as TikTok don’t mess about when it comes to snatching as much data as possible so if you are worried about your privacy, you might want to ask yourself: is the app really worth it?