Thirty U.S. state government websites contain a web-tracking code made by TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, based in China, according to a new report.
The Wall Street Journal detailed the report by Feroot Security Fund of Toronto on Tuesday. The firm's review of websites of 3,500 companies, organizations, and government entities found the so-called tracking pixels were on 30 of the official websites. Those websites include some where the TikTok app has been banned from state networks.
The Journal noted the code means that those U.S. state-governments have been unknowingly participating in a data-collection effort for the Chinese company
The newspaper said website administrators say the tracking pixels are used to measure the effectiveness of advertising they have bought on TikTok. They say the pixels help government agencies determine how many people saw an ad on the controversial social-media app.
TikTok's pixels "can be watching and recording you when you're renewing your driver's license, paying your taxes, or filling out doctors' forms," said Ivan Tsarynny, chief executive of Feroot. He added they should be removed from websites of government agencies and companies that collect personal data.
A TikTok spokeswoman told the Journal: "Like other platforms, the data we receive from advertisers is used to improve the effectiveness of our advertising services. Our terms instruct advertisers not to share certain data with us, and we continuously work with our partners to avoid inadvertent transmission of such data."
Tracking pixels can sometimes be set up to collect details that users enter on websites, including usernames, addresses, and other sensitive information. With the aid of pixels on enough websites, the companies running them can piece together the browsing behavior of individual users.
TikTok has maintained that its user data is stored in the U.S., and not China.
The Wall Street Journal was able to identify a TikTok tracking pixel in the code of a Maryland Department of Health COVID-19 website and a Utah government website aimed at helping those looking for jobs.
Both states had already issued executive orders banning the app from state-owned devices and networks, but the tracking pixel remained on the two official websites as recently as last week, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Utah and Maryland removed the pixel after being notified by the Journal.
TikTok is considering separating from ByteDance to help address U.S. concerns about national security risks, Bloomberg News reported Tuesday, citing people familiar with the matter.
A divestiture, which could result in a sale or initial public offering, is considered a last resort and will be pursued only if the company's existing proposal with U.S. national security officials does not get approved, Bloomberg reported, according to Reuters.
TikTok is undergoing a national security review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), and it agreed last year to implement a number of measures under the plan, nicknamed "Project Texas," in an attempt to placate hostile lawmakers.
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