TikTok: Exploiting, Exploited, or Exploiter?

August 12, 2020

I read “TikTok Tracked Users’ Data with a Tactic Google Banned.” [Note: You will have to pay to view this article. Hey, The Murdoch outfit has to have a flow of money to offset its losses from some interesting properties, right?]

The write up reveals that TikTok, the baffler for those over 50, tricked users. Those lucky consumers of 30 second videos allegedly had one of their mobile devices ID numbers sucked into the happy outfit’s data maw. Those ID numbers — unlike the other codes in mobile devices — cannot be changed. (At least, that’s the theory.)

What can one do with a permanent ID number? Let us count some of the things:

  1. Track a user
  2. Track a user
  3. Track a user
  4. Obtain information to pressure a susceptible person into taking an action otherwise not considered by that person?

I think that covers the use cases.

The write up states with non-phone tap seriousness, a business practice of one of the Murdoch progeny:

The identifiers collected by TikTok, called MAC address, are most commonly used for advertising purposes.

Whoa, Nellie. This here is real journalism. A MAC address is shorthand for “media access control.” I think of the MAC address as a number tattooed on a person’s forehead. Sure, it can be removed… mostly. But once a user watches 30-second videos and chases around for “real” information on a network, that unique number can be used to hook together otherwise disparate items of information. The MAC is similar to one of those hash codes which allow fast access to data in a relational structure or maybe an interest graph. One can answer the question, “What are the sites with this MAC address in log files?” The answer can be helpful to some individuals.

There are some issues bubbling beneath the nice surface of the Murdoch article; for example:

  1. Why did Google prohibit access to a MAC address, yet leave a method to access the MAC address available to those in the know? (Those in the know include certain specialized services support US government agencies, ByteDance, and just maybe Google. You know Google. That is the outfit which wants to create a global seismic system using every Android device who owner gives permission to monitor earthquakes. Yep, is that permission really needed? Ho, ho, ho.)
  2. What vendors are providing MAC address correlations across mobile app content and advertising data? The WSJ is chasing some small fish who have visited these secret data chambers, but are there larger, more richly robust outfits in the game? (Yikes, that’s actually going to take more effort than calling a university professor who runs a company about advertising as a side gig. Effort? Yes, not too popular among some “real” Murdoch reporters.)
  3. What are the use cases for interest graphs based on MAC address data? In this week’s DarkCyber video available on Facebook at this link, you can learn about one interesting application: Targeting an individual who is susceptible to outside influence to take an action that individual otherwise would not take. Sounds impossible, no? Sorry, possible, yes.

To summarize, interesting superficial coverage but deeper research was needed to steer the writing into useful territory and away from the WSJ’s tendency to drift closer to News of the World-type information. Bad TikTok, okay. Bad Google? Hmmmm.

Stephen E Arnold, August 12, 2020

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