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TikTok fires back at Forbes, denies report of a plan to track specific US citizens using its app

TikTok fires back at Forbes, denies report of a plan to track specific US citizens using its app

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TikTok accused Forbes of leaving off a vital part of its statement. TikTok claims the missing part of the quote disproves ‘the feasibility of its core allegation.’

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Nick Barclay / The Verge

TikTok is strongly pushing back against a Forbes report alleging that its parent company wanted to use the video app to “monitor the personal location of some specific American citizens.” 

In a series of tweets, TikTok accused Forbes of leaving off a vital part of its statement, which says that “TikTok does not collect precise GPS location information from US users,” despite the article’s claims that its parent company ByteDance considered obtaining “location data from U.S. users’ devices.”

In a thread of tweets posted Friday morning, the article’s author Emily Baker-White had her own set of rebuttals, noting that “We never mentioned GPS in the story. In fact, we quoted their spokesperson saying they collect approx location via IP address. Not using GPS does not mean they could not use that approx location to monitor certain individuals.”

The article, posted earlier on Thursday, said that ByteDance’s Internal Audit team — usually tasked with keeping an eye on those who currently work for the company or who have worked for the company in the past — planned on surveilling at least two Americans who “had never had an employment relationship with the company.”

Forbes says its report was based on materials it reviewed but did not include details about who was potentially going to be tracked or why ByteDance was planning on tracking them, claiming that doing so may put its sources at risk.

Screenshot of a thread from TikTokComms reading, in part: Forbes’ reporting about TikTok continues to lack both rigor and journalistic integrity. Specifically, Forbes chose not to include the portion of our statement that disproved the feasibility of its core allegation: TikTok does not collect precise GPS location information from US users, meaning TikTok could not monitor US users in the way the article suggested.
TikTok is strongly denying the allegations.

Forbes’ article says that TikTok and ByteDance didn’t answer questions about whether the internal audit team had ever targeted US politicians, activists, public figures, or journalists and compared the alleged plan to Uber’s “greyball” program that targeted specific users, in some cases serving regulators a misleading version of the app.

In its thread, TikTok says the app has “never been used to ‘target’” anyone in those groups and that it doesn’t change the in-app experience for those people. (It’s worth noting that’s not an absolute denial of any consideration for specific targeting or that a request was ever made — TikTok’s only saying its app has not been used for that purpose.) The company says that the audit team “follows set policies and processes to acquire information they need to conduct internal investigations.”

It also claims that anyone caught doing what Forbes alleged in the article would be fired.

The security of TikTok data has been a broadly cited concern about the platform for years, especially for US lawmakers concerned about the Chinese government’s access to data about US citizens. After a June report from BuzzFeed News alleged that US user data had been accessed from China, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew wrote a letter to Republican critics addressing how the company planned to keep American user data separate from ByteDance.

Update October 21st, 10:20AM ET: Added response tweets from Forbes reporter Emily Baker-White.