In October 2022, TikTok quietly introduced a new feature for advertisers on its platform. Called “Focus Tracking,” it promises to only put ads in front of users that it determines are “emotionally engaged” (i.e. not watching television in the background with occasional glances at the screen).
TikTok is not forthcoming about the fine details of how this alleged emotion tracking system works, but a prior marketing study it commissioned in 2021 indicates it may be using eye tracking, heart rate and other invasive measures that might go as far as collecting sensitive biometric or health information.
The product puts TikTok in an awkward position: either it works but it’s so invasive that it may well invite regulatory scrutiny, or it doesn’t work and the company is misrepresenting its capabilities to ad buyers. This comes as it faces a barrage of legal issues in multiple countries centered on its protection of underage users, questionable ad tracking practices and possible connections to the Chinese government.
TikTok claims of “emotion tracking” raise a variety of questions
TikTok’s pitch to advertisers is that its emotion tracking functionality ensures that their ads, for which they generally pay per view or interaction, are only winding up in front of users that will actually pay attention to them. It’s what advertisers want to hear, but it’s unclear if TikTok can actually deliver even if it gets as invasive as making use of biometric information to gauge that interest.
TikTok does not explain exactly how this emotion tracking system works on a technical level, however, either to its prospective clients or to the general public. The company claims that ads will be placed in front of users that are most likely to either watch for at least six seconds, or to interact with the ad within the first six seconds. It then sells the service on a variety of collected metrics, but does not explain exactly how it is monitoring user attention to ads.
Privacy advocacy group Access Now points to a Mediascience study that the video giant commissioned in 2021. The study involved 343 participants between the ages of 18 and 45, conducted under lab conditions that involved eye tracking and monitoring of heart rates. It is unclear if TikTok uses the same metrics to determine user attention under real world conditions, but the technology exists to track things like eye movement, head position and heart rate via a phone to feed this emotion tracking system.
Access Now has penned an open letter to TikTok seeking answers. The letter demands to know if the company conducted a privacy assessment prior to rolling out this emotion tracking system, if any consultations were made with relevant data protection authorities, and what the legal basis for collecting and processing this information is under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It also seeks clarification of potential issues that eye tracking and biometric information collection might raise under the EU ePrivacy Directive and the Unfair Commercial Practice Directive.
Clarity needed on potentially controversial TikTok data collection
The emotion tracking system is particularly worrying given that it follows several studies in 2022 that found TikTok is one of the more promiscuous apps in terms of sharing personal data with third parties.
About one year ago, a study published by URL Genius found that TikTok and YouTube were the most data-hungry of the major social media apps. However, most of YouTube’s data was taken for internal use; TikTok was by far the most generous about allowing third-party trackers to monitor the behavior and viewing preferences of its users. The study also noted that TikTok allowed third party trackers to operate even when the user opted out of sharing data with third parties. TikTok disputed the accuracy of that study.
A follow-up from Consumer Reports in September found that TikTok uses a “tracking pixel” system (similar to the one employed by Facebook) to track its users as they browse the web, even when they are logged out of the app. The report found that the TikTok pixel was present on hundreds of popular websites and collected a variety of personally identifying data: IP addresses, URLs visited, and text typed into fields or search bars, all tied to a unique identifying number.
TIkTok has already faced fines and regulatory actions over violations of both the GDPR and the ePrivacy Directive in the EU, most recently being fined by France over a manipulative cookie consent process. Other DPAs have taken it to task over child protection issues, and proposals to change its consent mechanism to an automatic opt-in system. In the US, the video platform faces increasing calls for a national ban over its perceived impact on the psychology of children and the potential of US user data being shared with the Chinese government.