TikTok accused by privacy watchdog of tracking user emotions to sell advertising slots

Rarely a stranger to controversy, TikTok has been slammed yet again for launching an advertising emotion tracker – a disputed tech feature that digital human rights group Access Now has described as “another privacy nightmare” for 200 million users in Europe alone.

With states across the US banning the Chinese-owned social media app, TikTok’s troubles in the West appear far from over, with Access Now saying it “does not appear to have learned its lesson.”

The latest furor surrounds TikTok’s Focused View feature, launched in October, which purportedly can track user emotions to better pitch adverts using eye tracking, heart-rate monitoring, and other approaches to measure how advertising affects consumers cognitively both overtly and subconsciously.

“TikTok says it will ensure that ads are placed in front of users who are ‘truly paying attention’ and that brands will only pay for ads if a user has ‘voluntarily’ watched it for at least six seconds, or has interacted with it within the first six seconds,” said Access Now.

While casting doubt on whether such a technique even works, the digital watchdog said that, either way, it most likely amounts to another infringement of privacy rights.

“With this pay-if-they-engage feature, TikTok is making bold claims that are either dubious and unscientific or selling an invasion of privacy – or both,” said Access Now. “In claiming that ads will be delivered to ‘emotionally’ and ‘tangibly’ engaged users, TikTok is suggesting it could read people’s emotions. However, it fails to provide details on how the feature would actually work.”

Pick your evil: pseudo-science or privacy infringement

Citing experts who have dismissed the principles behind Focused View as “pseudo-science,” Access Now added that its use by TikTok raised “serious questions about the scientific validity of this kind of technology and the necessity of collecting extremely invasive data just to deliver ads.”

“Even if we give TikTok’s Focused View the benefit of the doubt regarding its capacity for emotion recognition, the data practices deployed to make the feature work would be a true privacy nightmare,” said Access Now.

“The mere gathering of information about your level of attention, your emotional state, or simply how long you pay attention to an ad represents highly invasive tracking and intrusion into your private mental state. Emotions are an intimate part of our being. They are directly linked with our personal autonomy and dignity, and are protected from interference by the rights to privacy and freedom of thought.”

Other related concerns raised over TikTok - besides its being owned by China, suspected of being the world leader in cyber espionage campaigns aimed at stealing intellectual property from Western organizations – include attempts to impede user ability to decline adverts on their interfaces, allegations that it is data harvesting on behalf of the People’s Republic, and excessive targeting of child data.