TikTok Is Using Your Phone Number To Track You: How To Turn Off The Data-Stalker Setting

TikTok Is Using Your Phone Number To Track You: How To Turn Off The Data-Stalker Setting

TikTok data
TikTok Is Using Your Phone Number To Track You: How To Turn Off The Data-Stalker Setting

You can use multiple email addresses to protect yourself from leaks and phishing, but most of us have one cell phone number.

Once you give up that phone number to viral-video app TikTok, you’re giving up an immensely powerful data field that can be used to track you across apps and websites used by other companies, wrote Forbes contributor Zak Doffman, the founder and CEO of Digital Barriers, which develops advanced surveillance solutions.

A Chinese-owned viral-video app, TikTok has 689 million users, and more than 78 percent are between age 10 and 39. The app faced serious problems in the U.S. in 2020, when former President Donald Trump threatened to ban it because of its Chinese ownership.

“TikTok’s biggest pull is its vast, and partly untapped, audience of young users,” Financial Times reported. The company says that 40 percent of people on TikTok do not have a Facebook account and that 63 percent are not on Twitter.

If you have TikTok on your phone, there’s a good chance TikTok has your phone number — it’s the easiest way to sign up for an account and then login, Doffman wrote. Researchers at security firm Check Point suggest you change that.

“I see significant privacy risks in users giving TikTok their phone number as an account identifier,” Check Point’s Ekram Ahmed told Doffman.

Check Point released a report on the latest threat from TikTok, saying that a server-side security vulnerability would have enabled an outside actor to query TikTok’s database, pulling private information and linking phone numbers to profiles. This could have been used to harvest private contact details or to build a database of users to target at scale.

“We share private data with social media apps and we expect that data to be safeguarded,” Doffman wrote. “But the clamor for new features that expand the viral reach of those apps or increase our hours spent on them introduces weaknesses that can be exploited.”

TikTok isn’t alone in this, Dorfman wrote. “Just look at Facebook’s data issues.” But despite recent furor about WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram and Facebook Messenger, none of them use data to track users “across apps and websites used by other companies,” as defined by Apple, Doffman wrote. TikTok and its competitors do exactly that. “The real concern here is that is involves user phone numbers.”

Cyberattacks using your phone number are much more dangerous than email equivalents, sending you malicious links or images or downloads. Those numbers also drive messaging account hijacks now on the rise. If an attacker can match those numbers with other profile details, that is a powerful attack database.

“It isn’t worth giving TikTok, Instagram or any social media platform your number to expedite finding your friends,” Ahmed said, “as you’ll likely trade short-term convenience for serious breaches of your privacy.”

Although it isn’t mandatory to give your phone number to TikTok, removing it isn’t easy.

You have to contact TikTok support, a TikTok spokesperson told Doffman. “They can contact support in app to help with that change. We continue to explore ways to make it easier for users to make these changes in app.”

There’s another way of removing your phone number from TikTok, according to Matt Turner on iStanuch, who wrote, “Go to app settings and tap on change phone number option. Next, enter the new number and verification code sent to remove it completely.”

Even if you don’t have a TikTok account, TikTok still collects data on you if you watch videos on its platform, according to Vice. TikTok’s privacy policy states they “collect certain information from you when you use the Platform including when you are using the app without an account”. This “technical information” includes your IP address, mobile carrier, timezone and more.

“Just remember – browsing without an account doesn’t make you anonymous,” when it comes to TikTok data, Riccardo Coluccini reported for Vice.

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“This is why all those apps on your phone appear to know everything about you, it’s why you’re constantly taken aback at the personalized nature of all those ads, it’s where those billions in ad revenue come from. Don’t forget—you’re not the customer, you’re the product,” Doffman wrote.

DuckDuckGo, the fourth-largest search engine in the U.S. with 1.61 percent of market share, retweeted Doffman’s Forbes report with this message: “If you have TikTok, it’s highly likely they have your phone number, which is a gold mine that allows the platform to track users ‘across apps and websites used by other companies'”.

Compared to DuckDuckGo, Google owns 87.6 percent of the search engine market. A key difference between Google and DuckDuckGo is that DuckDuckGo does not store IP addresses or user information and it doesn’t track you.