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It is difficult to deny that 2020 was the year of TikTok. The app has become quite popular amid the need to find distractions during the pandemic.

Along with popularity, concerns about the security of information within the app have emerged. Even with drastic actions by Donald Trump, former US president, how to request the ban the platform.  

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Even so, that hasn't changed the fact that TikTok has become a phenomenon. However, following the line of privacy, Riccardo Coluccini, journalist at Vice Italy, decided to try to understand to what extent the application actually knew about the content accessed by the user.  

Taking advantage of the General Data Protection Regulation of the European Union, Coluccini asked TikTok for all the data the company stored for the almost two months in which he used the platform.  

For this experiment, he reports that he never created an account on the social network. If the site is opened in the browser, it is possible to view the content without subscribing, although some resources - such as commenting, following and sharing - can only be used with a profile.  

There are still some lucky ones who manage to use the app without an account, while others are required to sign up.  

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Experience with TikTok 

As mentioned, Coluccini says he used the platform for about two months. According to the data received from TikTok, in that period, he watched about 30 videos per day. A considerable amount - even if below the average of 184 videos per day for most users.  

The interesting thing is that the company claims that, when you do not have an account, it is not possible to identify usage data if someone asks for details.

In fact, the journalist had his first request rejected on the grounds that “we were unable to locate an account associated with the email address”.  

However, in its own privacy policy, TikTok states that “it collects certain information from you when you use the platform, including when you are using the application without an account”. This “technical information” that is collected includes the IP address, mobile operator and time zone.  

Despite refusing to provide a detailed history of the app's use without proving that Coluccini was in fact the person who browsed the app, the company continued to use the information collected.  

This could be proven with the journalist discovering that the app shared information with the Facebook 595 times. With that, it is possible to affirm that the TikTok data were linked to the social network of Mark Zuckerberg.  

Interactions with Facebook shows how many times TikTok exchanged information with Mark Zuckerberg's social network. Photo: Riccardo Coluccini / Vice

Finally, using “technical information”, he gained access to his data. He received two files Excel password-protected and a key to open them in a separate email.  

Protected files 

The first document was a table with almost 1.900 rows. Each detailing the viewing history of the videos, one by one. The second was the location where the “User data and activities” were stored. Here, the user came across a table containing 15.886 rows and 24 columns.  

It consists of 381.264 units of data detailing the entire experience of Coluccini within the application, all in the smallest details. Although it was not a surprise, the presence of information, such as details and time of exhibition, shocked the journalist.  

In addition, the document showed the device used, as well as the screen resolution, phone operator, operating system and IP address of the device.  

One of the documents detailed the videos watched by the user. Riccardo Coluccin

Privacy policies generally justify this collection as greater security for users. Large companies, for example, say that keeping track of their activities helps them find and eliminate fraudulent accounts.  

There are constant claims that this data is not used against the interests of users. However, just knowing that this information is stored somewhere - possibly vulnerable to cyber attacks - can be worrying.  

Even so, it is no secret that not only TikTok, but several other companies have a large database of all user activities. This raises an important question: continue to use social networks anyway or just abandon them? 

It is worth remembering that, even with account exclusions, some companies still keep the data stored. Furthermore, as we have seen, browsing without an account does not guarantee anonymity. 

Street: Vice