Which social media firms are tracking you the most? How TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and WeChat are all harvesting your data – and how to stop them
- A cyber security firm has revealed the apps hoovering up the most personal data
- TikTok was labelled as the biggest offender, scoring higher than Russian site VK
Social media giants are tracking your every move, scooping up huge amounts of personal data from armies of unwitting users – but some are guilty of hoovering up more information than others.
TikTok is the biggest data harvester, collecting more than any other social media app or messaging service, according to a study by cyber security firm Internet 2.0.
Owned by Chinese firm ByteDance, the popular video-sharing app has around a billion active users worldwide. But it has more than double the number of trackers in its source code than the industry average.
TikTok’s tracking software surreptitiously gathers data about users to fine tune the algorithm running its main feed. But it can also hoover up information about your wi-fi network and Sim card, fuelling fears about how this data is used.
But the firm isn’t alone, with Microsoft Teams, Outlook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat all ranking in the top eight of the 22 major companies soaking up the most data – while Facebook was rated one of the best, at 16th in Internet 2.0’s assessment.
This is how the most popular social media and messaging platforms stacked up according to a study of how much personal data they were able to take from users, with those guilty of taking the most information getting the highest scores
Concerns have been raised about how much personal information social media firms are able to gather through trackers that are a part of the company’s tech (stock image)
Using its Malcore software, the Internet 2,0 gave each app a score based on the amount of personal information collected, with TikTok notching up a total of 63.1 – higher than VK, the Russian version of Facebook banned by Apple.
READ MORE: TikTok reveals staff in China can SPY on UK user data – raising serious concerns about privacy
It was found to have nine trackers and ‘lots of permissions and code severity warnings’ leading to its score, with Internet 2.0 branding its level of tracking ‘overly intrusive and not necessary for the application to function.’
Meanwhile VK, Russia’s second-largest internet company but which has had its apps removed from Apple amid security fears, recorded a rating of 62.7, with 13 trackers and 28 ‘dangerous permissions’ uncovered in its source code.
The third most-tracked app was Viber Messenger, which has more than a billion users. It was discovered to have 11 trackers.
Microsoft Teams – popular for work conference calls – had four trackers but a high amount of permission requests, giving it a score of 38, placing it fourth.
While the Outlook email service, estimated to have 400 million users globally, was fifth with 35.9 and seven trackers, followed by Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and LinkedIn, which all scored around 34 – above the industry average of 28.8. Gmail scored 29.6 while WeChat was found to have five trackers.
Facebook’s app recorded one of the lowest scores due to ‘very few code warnings’, despite having a high amount of permission requests.
And messaging service Signal – which is favoured by the British military over its rival WhatsApp to organise day-to-day events – was one of the best apps, with Facebook Messenger and Discord also scoring highly.
The full study showed which social media apps, email and messaging services siphoned the most personal data, according to cyber security firm Internet 2.0
There have long been concerns around TikTok over its links to China because its parent company, ByteDance, was founded in the country, and critics have raised fears data could be passed to the Chinese state
The result of the study comes amid a security row over how the information collected by social media firms is used.
TikTok has been marred in controversy over fears the data it collects could be used by the Chinese government to spy on people.
Critics raised fears data could be passed to the Chinese state. In December, TikTok executive Liz Kanter insisted the platform has not been asked for UK user data by the Chinese government and would not provide it if it was.
Last week a senior Tory MP urged millions of Brits to delete the app from their phones to protect person data from ‘hostile threats’.
Alicia Kearns, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said users should ‘without question’ ditch the app as she warned ‘politics and business in China are inseparable’.
TikTok owners ByteDance, based in Beijing, have strenuously denied any data would ever be handed over to the Chinese government.
But speaking on Sky News, Ms Kearns said: ‘It is not worth having that vulnerability on your phone.
‘It is the ultimate data source for anyone with hostile efforts.’
Alicia Kearns (pictured), who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, said users should ‘without question’ get rid of the app as she suggested the video-sharing platform is linked to China’s efforts to build a ‘tech totalitarian state’
There have been long-held fears that cyber experts in Beijing could use the Chinese-based firm that runs TikTok, ByteDance to spy on users – although this has been strenuously denied by the tech company
David Robinson, a former Australian army intelligence officer and co-founder of Internet 2.0, said the firm had ‘long-term privacy and security concerns’ over TikTok.
‘We believe it is their word against their source code as they rate nearly twice as bad as their competitors when scored comparatively using a standardised analysis benchmark,’ he added.
Companies based in China must comply with demands from Beijing as part of the state’s 2017 security law.
Alan Woodward, professor of cybersecurity at Surrey University, told The Times: ‘TikTok appears to be gathering information and some of what they’re gathering you have to wonder why, other than to build a full dossier on a person.
‘The type of data is so broad that it’s difficult not to conclude it’s being used for more than just marketing and building up sort of marketing profiles of people. And that, I think, is a worry, particularly in the current geopolitical environment where China is proving itself to be quite an assertive state actor.’
TikTok said: ‘This report appears to be based on the same misleading analyses Internet 2.0 conducted last year. Recent reporting and studies contradict its conclusions.
‘The TikTok app is not unique in the amount of information it collects, and in fact [it] collects less data than many popular mobile apps.’
HOW CAN YOU FIND AND DELETE WHERE GOOGLE KNOWS YOU’VE BEEN?
Even if you have ‘Location History’ off, Google often stores your precise location.
Here’s how to delete those markers and some best-effort practices that keep your location as private as possible.
But there’s no panacea, because simply connecting to the internet on any device flags an IP address that can be geographically mapped.
Smartphones also connect to cell towers, so your carrier knows your general location at all times.
To disable tracking on any device
Fire up your browser and go to myactivity.google.com. You’ll need to be logged into Google.
On the upper left drop-down menu, go to ‘Activity Controls.’ Turn off both ‘Web & App Activity’ and ‘Location History.’
That should prevent precise location markers from being stored to your Google account.
Google will warn you that some of its services won’t work as well with these settings off.
In particular, neither the Google Assistant, a digital concierge, nor the Google Home smart speaker will be particularly useful.
If you use Google Maps, adjust your location setting to ‘While Using’ the app. This will prevent the app from accessing your location when it’s not active.
Go to Settings Privacy Location Services and from there select Google Maps to make the adjustment.
In the Safari web browser, consider using a search engine other than Google.
Under Settings Safari Search Engine, you can find other options like Bing or DuckDuckGo.
You can turn location off while browsing by going to Settings Privacy Location Services Safari Websites, and turn this to ‘Never.’
This still won’t prevent advertisers from knowing your rough location based on IP address on any website.
You can also turn Location Services off to the device almost completely from Settings Privacy Location Services.
Both Google Maps and Apple Maps will still work, but they won’t know where you are on the map and won’t be able to give you directions.
Emergency responders will still be able to find you if the need arises.
Under the main settings icon click on ‘Security & location.’ Scroll down to the ‘Privacy’ heading. Tap ‘Location.’ You can toggle it off for the entire device.
Use ‘App-level permissions’ to turn off access to various apps.
Unlike the iPhone, there is no setting for ‘While Using.’
You cannot turn off Google Play services, which supplies your location to other apps if you leave that service on.
Sign in as a ‘guest’ on your Android device by swiping down from top and tapping the downward-facing cursor, then again on the torso icon.
Be aware of which services you sign in on, like Chrome. You can also change search engines even in Chrome.
To delete past location tracking on any device
On the page myactivity.google.com, look for any entry that has a location pin icon beside the word ‘details.’
Clicking on that pops up a window that includes a link that sometimes says ‘From your current location.’
Clicking on it will open Google Maps, which will display where you were at the time.
You can delete it from this popup by clicking on the navigation icon with the three stacked dots and then ‘Delete.’
Some items will be grouped in unexpected places, such as topic names, google.com, Search, or Maps.
You have to delete them item by item. You can wholesale delete all items in date ranges or by service, but will end up taking out more than just location markers.
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