Given the threat of a ban and the acquisition demands being imposed upon it by the US government, it’s almost too easy to view popular social media platform TikTok as an innocent victim. It may not be without its own faults, however, that could, in turn, sour the public’s opinion of the service and the Chinese company that runs it. According to a new report, the app may have been tracking Android users until last year using a method that has been expressly forbidden by Google’s policies.
Tracking users for whatever purpose, including and especially for advertising, is largely frowned upon. Tracking users without their knowledge or their ability to opt out is even more disdained and, in some cases, forbidden by platform policies or even illegal in some countries. Despite and in spite of that, TikTok has apparently been tracking Android users using a piece of data that they can never really change or reset, also without their knowledge and with the ability to stop it.
TikTok’s clandestine method involves reading a device’s MAC or “media access control” address, a unique 12-figure ID that all networked devices, like phones, have. The ID is permanent and remains the same no matter how many times a user resets their phone. It’s for that reason that Apple and later Google blocked ways for apps to access that information.
Unfortunately for Android users, there was apparently a well-known way to get around that block on Google’s platform, something that TikTok may have used to game the system and keep tracking users even after they have opted out of advertising tracking. According to the Wall Street Journal’s own testing, that tracking ended only in November last year.
Neither Google nor ByteDance commented on the report, though the latter did claim that the current version of TikTok doesn’t collect MAC addresses, leaving the question open for previous versions of the app. Google also apparently knew about the loophole but didn’t comment on whether that has already been fixed. If proven to be true, this incident could give the US government more ammo to fire at TikTok as the countdown to the service’s ban or acquisition continues.