Chinese Spyware App TikTok Collects Data From More Than Two-Dozen State Governments, Review Finds

March 21, 2023

Websites for more than two-dozen state governments use a web-tracking code made by the parent company of TikTok, a Chinese spyware app, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.

"Web-tracking pixels" made by ByteDance Ltd., TikTok's parent company, were present in 30 U.S. state government websites across 27 states, a review by Feroot Security found. Some of those states had already banned the app from "state networks and devices," the Journal noted. Website administrators "use such pixels to help measure the effectiveness of advertising they have purchased on TikTok."

The pixels, however, "can be watching and recording you when you're renewing your driver's license, paying your taxes, or filling out doctors' forms," Feroot Security's CEO told the Journal.

Evidence has shown for years that ByteDance spies on American citizens. The company used TikTok to track the physical locations of Forbes journalists and obtain the data of a former BuzzFeed reporter, a Financial Times reporter, and people connected to the reporters, Forbes reported in December.

As a Chinese company, ByteDance shares data with the country's Communist government.

After widespread criticism, President Joe Biden, who has long pursued a cozy relationship with TikTok, in February agreed to ban the app from government devices. One month later, TikTok retained a Democratic public relations firm whose founding partner is a top Biden adviser, the Free Beacon reported.

Though ByteDance's tracking pixels are ostensibly for advertising, they "can sometimes be configured to collect data that users enter on websites, such as usernames, addresses, and other sensitive information," the Journal reported.

The Journal itself was able to find the pixels on government websites from Maryland and Utah, both of which had banned TikTok from state-owned devices and networks. Both states removed the pixels after the Journal reached out.

Feroot found tracking pixels from other Chinese-owned companies, as well as Russian-owned companies, on state government websites.

While a bill aimed at restricting TikTok is making its way through Congress, critics say the legislation "will let the Biden administration avoid taking real action" against the app, the Free Beacon reported. And even a national TikTok ban, the Journal wrote, "wouldn't address many of these data-collection concerns."