Popular video-sharing app TikTok is being investigated for possible data breaches over the handling of personal data.
In particular, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is looking at how the personal data of the app’s young users is being managed and whether the safety of children on the social network is their main focus.
Earlier this week, Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner told a parliamentary committee: “We are looking at the transparency tools for children.
“We’re looking at the messaging system, which is completely open, we’re looking at the kind of videos that are collected and shared by children online. We do have an active investigation into TikTok right now, so watch this space.”
She said the investigation had started in February following news that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had handed out a multimillion dollar fine for similar violations.
Not only are investigators looking at how the private data has been collected, but also how the open messaging system allows any adult to message a child.
This they say goes against the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which “requires the company to provide different services and different protections for children”.
TikTok is an iOS and Android media app for creating and sharing short videos. The app was launched in 2017 by ByteDance, for markets outside of China.
Since it first launched in 2017, TikTok has garnered more than 1.2 billion downloads according to analyst firm Sensor Tower.
The short-form mobile video app has quickly built a massive community of creators and viewers thanks to its easy-to-use but powerful features.
TikTok says that in 2018 it was one of the most downloaded apps in the world across both iOS and Android and says it is most popular with 16- to 24-year-olds.
However, there are claims that many users are under 13, which is against the app’s rules.
The firm has already been fined $5.7m (£4.5m) by a US regulator after being accused of collecting under-13s’ personal details without their parents’ consent.
The BBC has also investigated the social network after claims that young people felt pressured into sending money to their favourite influencers on the app.
The BBC monitored dozens of live streams over ten weeks in which the app’s stars asked fans for gifts.
TikTok has since said it is “sorry” that some children and other young people have felt compelled into sending cash and said it would strengthen its policies and guidelines, although they died not explain how this would actually happen.
Fans can send their favourite videomakers “digital gifts” via the app, which can cost up to £48.99.
One girl called Claire (not her real name) told BBC News she regretted spending £100 to obtain her favourite TikTok star’s phone number.
Claire, 12, who lives in the north-west of England, sent TikTok star Sebastian Moy a £48.99 “drama queen” gift to show her appreciation for his videos. He never answered his phone to her.
TikTok allows videomakers with more than 1,000 followers to broadcast live on the platform. Critics say that it is during these live streams that fans can send digital gifts.
Gifts cost between 5p and £48.99 and appear as on-screen animations. The app’s biggest stars can earn thousands of pounds in one live stream.
Several influencers told the BBC they took home 50% of all gift revenue earned but they declined to say how much of that money it kept.
Some creators routinely offered personal messaging details and phone numbers in exchange for gifts.
The BBC also found a group who scoured the app for people giving gifts and then contacted them directly asking for money in exchange for “likes” and “follows”.
Another TikTok fan, Kelly, told the BBC she had spent £500-£600 of her own money on digital gifts.
Kelly said: “I understand people need to make money these days off social media but I just think it’s force-fed down young people’s throats that they need to pay money to get attention or feel appreciated.”
The BBC contacted several of the TikTok stars seen using such techniques but most of them did not reply.
Livestream gifting originated in China – where TikTok’s owner Bytedance is based. The practice is far more popular there.
Professional “cam girls” earn huge amounts from their audiences.
Bytedance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, declined to answer specific questions.
However, they but told the BBC it was investigating digital gifting.
“We do not tolerate behaviours that are deceptive in nature and we are sorry to hear some of the users’ experiences,”, they said in a statement.
“We recognise there is always room for improvements in terms of making guidelines and information more accessible, clear and easy-to-understand for all users.
“We value your feedback and will further strengthen our policies and product features.“