TikTok reportedly tracked users who watched gay content on the platform and put them on a secret list.
According to a new report by The Wall Street Journal, TikTok kept tabs on users who watched clips that were tagged under topics such as “LGBT,” short for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, and monitored them for at least a year.
A group of ex-TikTok employees told the publication that this information about users’ viewing habits was compiled and stored on a dashboard that could be viewed by some company staff.
The Wall Street Journal notes that what makes this alleged list concerning is that it was not only accessible to an unusual number of employees at the Chinese-owned company, but that there were times when employees in China controlled the permissions of the list as well.
TikTok employees, who were based in the company’s offices in the U.S., U.K., and Australia, became concerned about the alleged list because it could be used to identify LGBTQ users and if leaked or provided to hostile governments, could put those users at risk.
The ex-TikTok employees flagged the issue to top executives in 2020 and 2021. The group expressed their concerns that the information would be shared with outside parties or could be used to blackmail TikTok users.
In a statement to The Wall Street Journal, a spokesperson for TikTok says that the dashboard that employees used to access the data on users who watched gay content was deleted in the U.S. nearly a year ago.
The TikTok representative says that the Chinese government has never asked for information about U.S. users, nor has the company ever provided such data.
“Safeguarding the privacy and security of people who use TikTok is one of our top priorities,” the TikTok spokesperson tells the publication.
The new report raises further questions about how TikTok and its Chinese parent company ByteDance handle user information.
Social media companies are known to maintain user profiles in order to offer them personalized ads. However, social media platforms are advised not to collect sensitive data like sexual orientation as it has the potential to make users into targets.
The revelations come as TikTok, which is used by over 100 million Americans, faces a potential nationwide ban in the U.S.
TikTok has repeatedly stated that U.S. user data is not stored in China where those laws apply. And the company has sought to assure U.S. lawmakers that American user data is safe.