Study Finds TikTok Tracking Pixels Present in State-Government Sites

Photo credit: Olivier Bergeron/Unsplash

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What’s scarier: the Luddite ineptitude of big government or the ubiquity of big tech?

As state and local governments move to ban TikTok from employee devices, a team of internet researchers at Feroot Security have discovered an alarming, if hilarious, self-own: TikTok’s web-activity tracking pixels are present in as many as 30 state government websites, effectively making them inadvertent agents in the Chinese company’s data collection practices.

The Call is Coming From Inside the State House

A nationwide ban on TikTok over fears that user data could hypothetically be shared with an increasingly belligerent Beijing is just about the only issue uniting politicians on both sides of the US political aisle at the moment. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will attempt to quell concerns in a congressional hearing later this week, but he probably didn’t help his cause Tuesday morning by delivering a personal message to the app’s 150 million US users warning that their favorite screen distraction may soon disappear from their devices.

Many state governments have already begun to take matters into their own hands. Unfortunately, those hands seemingly still find the touch of a keyboard more foreign than familiar — and are attached to brains that don’t quite realize that in an internet world predicated on digital advertising, Big Tech is always watching:

  • In a review of 3,500 companies, organizations, and government entities, Feroot found TikTok tracking pixels in 30 sites operated by 27 different states.
  • Examples include a Utah government site helping job seekers and Maryland’s Covid portal. Both states have banned the TikTok app on state-owned devices, and both states removed the trackers after being contacted by reporters from The Wall Street Journal.

Not Just TikTok: TikTok wasn’t the only foreign site caught snooping in the digital shadows. Feroot also found pixels on state-government sites from Tencent, Alibaba, and the Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky. Overall, TikTok pixels were in 10% of the 3,500 sites examined. Meanwhile, Meta and Microsoft were present in around half of all sites, while Google tracked you across 92% of sites. As Sting once sang: Every step you take …