Why is TikTok under investigation over child data use in the UK?

TikTok the popular video sharing app, has been placed under investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in the UK for how it collects and uses children’s personal information, and whether it takes enough steps to make sure its younger users are safe. The app, which lets users share short videos and pair them with music and other special effects, is especially popular among teenagers and preteens and has caused some concern for the privacy of minors online.

The launch of the ICO’s investigation in July 2019 will look into whether the app breaches European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This is because TikTok’s open messaging systems potentially allows adults to message children, which violates the GDPR requirement for any company “to provide different services and different protections for children.” A company can be fined up to £17.9 million or 4% of revenue, whichever is higher, for violating GDPR. The ICO also has the power to put in place new rules governing children (those under 13 years old) on social media if it deems it necessary, which companies will have to comply with going forward.

This isn’t the first time that TikTok has been investigated by a government agency. In February 2019, TikTok was fined a record breaking $5.7 million in the US (£4.3 million) for illegally collecting children’s personal information, including their locations and email addresses. Obligations about the way children’s data can be collected in the US are set out in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and require companies that have users under the age of 13 in the US to include mechanisms to inform parents when their child is using an internet service, and obtain their consent to collect their personal data.

The fine by the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was the result of TikTok failing to respond adequately to parents’ requests to delete data, and subsequently holding onto that data for longer than was reasonable.

As a result of the investigation, users of TikTok in the US are now required to verify their age when they open the app. TikTok has also added online safety videos to the app as well as comment filters for US residents. However, at the time TikTok said it would not be asking existing users in other countries to verify their age as the settlement only applied to the US. In light of this new investigation, it is expected that the UK will implement something similar.

If you are concerned about your child’s privacy online you can read our previous posts, which detail some easy steps you can take to help safeguard them online.