TikTok employees in China had access to a database of users who were consuming LGBT-related content, and could control who had access to that database, former employees reportedly told The Wall Street Journal.
Users on TikTok don’t have to disclose their sexual orientation, but the platform labels videos with certain themes, one of which is LGBT. Employees had access to a list of users who were watching videos in that category for at least a year, former employees told The WSJ.
New from @georgia_wells and me: TikTok tracked Users who watched LGBT content, prompting internal employee concerns that the app might be creating a list of gay users who could be at risk around the world.https://t.co/LkMcMqoKzA
— Byron Tau (@ByronTau) May 5, 2023
TikTok has faced scrutiny for its ties to the Chinese government and resulting security concerns, but has repeatedly denied sharing Americans’ sensitive user data with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But employees in China had access to the database of users who were consuming LGBT-related content, and for at least some time were able to control who else could view the information, according to The WSJ.
Other categories of video allegedly included mainstream female, alt-female, southeastern black male, black male, and coastal, white-collar male. TikTok kept track of which users consumed which categories in an effort to monitor trends and boost engagement, the former employees said.
The former employees also said they raised concerns with upper management in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia about the data, but went largely unheeded. TikTok reportedly restricted access to the clusters in 2021 before deleting them entirely in 2022. However, they are still accessible to the TikTok subsidiary that handles the company’s data in the United States, according to The WSJ.
A TikTok spokeswoman told The WSJ that the company doesn’t track the sexual orientations of users, nor does it infer that information. She said that the clusters only indicated what types of content certain users were watching.
Maintaining a list raised of potentially LGBT users was concerning to some employees, who feared such a list could endanger users in certain parts of the world where persecution of LGBT individuals is rampant. (RELATED: TikTok Continues Censorship Of Think Tank’s Account Promoting Anti-CCP Documentary)
Numerous states have moved to ban TikTok on government-affiliated devices, but some hawks are pushing further, aiming to ban the use of the app entirely. Several Republicans have pushed similar legislation at the federal level, although it’s unclear how open President Joe Biden would be to signing such a bill into law.