TikTok, a social media app that has skyrocketed in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, has been sued for allegedly violating Illinois users’ privacy rights.
The app, most popular among teenagers, lets users share quick and quirky videos they have edited.
Four unnamed minors who live in Illinois, represented by their parents or legal guardians, filed the suit against TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance. It alleges the app violated an Illinois law protecting people’s biometric information, which can include data from facial, fingerprint and iris scans.
The lawsuit, filed last week in San Francisco federal court, seeks class-action status. It estimates tens of thousands of users could have been affected.
TikTok uses facial recognition software to superimpose filters on users’ faces, and artificial intelligence to evaluate the quality of uploaded videos and determine the user’s age, according to the lawsuit. Through those processes, TikTok allegedly acquires the user’s facial geometry.
The company does not inform its users or their guardians their biometric information will be collected, the lawsuit alleges. Illinois’ biometric law requires companies collecting such data to obtain prior consent from consumers, detail how they’ll use it and how long it will be kept.
Illinois’ law also allows private citizens, rather than just governmental entities, to file lawsuits over the issue.
“This is not like other privacy information, like a password or something like that that can be changed,” said Adam Polk, an attorney representing the minors and their guardians who filed the lawsuit. “Your biometric data … is immutable."
The Illinois legislature has placed a heightened importance on making sure people share their biometric data “with their eyes completely open,” Polk said. That’s even more important with minors.
TikTok’s general counsel, Erich Andersen, said in a statement that the company does not plan to comment on the pending case.
“We take privacy seriously and are committed to helping ensure that TikTok continues to be a safe and entertaining community for our users,” he said.
Illinois’ biometric privacy law is one of the strictest of its kind in the nation, and tech behemoths including Google and Facebook have come under fire for alleged violations.
In January, Facebook agreed to pay $550 million to Illinois users to settle allegations that its facial tagging feature had violated the state’s biometric privacy law, ending a yearslong legal battle.
Companies collecting any data on users are being watched closely during the pandemic, as consumers develop a deeper dependence on technology through remote work and learning, said Bess Hinson, a partner and chair of the cybersecurity and privacy practice at the law firm Morris, Manning & Martin in Atlanta.
“Any time there’s a rise in popularity, a rise in profile, a company is subject to greater scrutiny,” she said. “Certainly it was the perfect storm for TikTok.”