Have you noticed that TikTok often shows you videos about areas you live? Not only the same country, but even the same state or the same city?
Has something happened that was just too personal to be a coincidence?
It turns out, TikTok seems to do a really good job at tracking your location, even if you never explicitly give it to them or give the app permission to save your location.
So, how does TikTok know where you’re located, and why do they go to such great lengths to obtain this information?
In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know.
1. GPS / Location Services
This is the obvious one.
On both Android and iOS, apps have the ability to specifically request your location, and many people just tap ‘Allow’ whenever it is requested without thinking twice about it.
By doing this, you allow TikTok to track your precise location using your phone’s built-in GPS. And although there are other ways TikTok may track your location as well, your GPS will always be the most accurate.
There is no good reason for TikTok to have your location data (or most apps for that matter), so you may want to make sure that this setting is off.
On iOS (iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch), you can do this by following these steps:
- Open your settings app.
- Tap on Privacy
- Tap on Location Services
- Scroll down to TikTok and tap on it.
- Change the setting to ‘Never’.
On Android, you can turn off location tracking for TikTok by following these steps:
- Open your settings
- Go to ‘Location’
- Tap on ‘App Permission’
- Find TikTok, and click on ‘Don’t Allow.’
If you follow these steps and see TikTok has never had location services enabled, you may be wondering – how the heck are they still tracking you?
Unfortunately, there are a few other methods they may use as well, which we’ll get to now.
2. Your Friend’s Known Locations
Even if you have location services turned off and you’ve never given TikTok permission to track you via GPS, that doesn’t mean you’re completely hidden.
In fact, they really don’t even need to receive anything from you to be able to predict where you live. Using the known locations of your friends or family is substantial enough!
Think about it – if you and your friends are all following each other and half of them share their location with TikTok willingly, it isn’t a stretch to predict that you also live in the same area.
While they may not be able to point down your exact address from your friends’ locations alone, it is more than enough to predict your general area, down to the specific city or town you’re located in.
Social networks go to great lengths and use very obscure data sources to fuel their data collection efforts.
For example, Facebook can predict who you’re connected with simply by seeing you pop up in other people’s photos, and may suggest people as friends if they do as much as glance at your profile.
Combine your friends’ known locations with other data, and TikTok can certainly predict its accuracy.
3. Your Info When Signing Up
TikTok can infer a lot of information from the moment you sign up.
For example, what region did you select when you made your account? What area code is your phone number? What email service did you use? What is the default language on your phone or tablet that you’re accessing TikTok from?
Even if you gave TikTok no other information and followed nobody on the platform, even something as abstract as this can be used to match you up with a particular region or area of your country.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, most people would agree that TikTok knowing at least your country is valuable, as it prevents you from being shown content in other languages.
But how far does this go? Could TikTok use public records to find out your entire identity, family member names, addresses etc based solely on your phone number?
There’s no way to know for sure, but tech behemoths like ByteDance (the owner of TikTok) recognize data as a valuable currency.
It’s said that when the product you’re using is free, you are the product being sold.
4. The Videos You Interact With
This one isn’t really TikTok’s fault, but it does play into their favor.
If you’re seeing a lot of videos from your state or city, it could be that it’s simply due to TikTok’s algorithm doing what it does best – showing you more content that you care about.
In this sense, your city wouldn’t be treated any different than any other type of topic on TikTok.
TikTok sees that you pay more attention when they show you content that’s local to you, so they in turn show you more of it.
You don’t recognize content from other cities quite as easily, so you flip away from it more quickly, and TikTok shows you less.
Ultimately, the algorithm learns what connects with you based on your engagement with each video.
The more you engage with certain topics, the more they are exposed to you.
Therefore, this simple act of reinforcement may be what’s causing videos around your location to appear more often – not anything else that’s nefarious.
5. Your Wi-Fi Name / IP Address
Last but not least, we have the information about your network.
This requires no information to be specifically given, and no permissions to be granted. If you use TikTok, they will receive this information every time unless you use a VPN (which can cause other issues.)
To verify this, I requested a copy of my personal data using the function within the TikTok app.
A few days later when it was ready, I opened a log file containing all of my logins to TikTok, which also contained my network’s IP address. Note that I have never had location services enabled, though as I mentioned, that doesn’t matter.
Once somebody has your IP address, it is trivial to find out the approximate area of your location.
Though interestingly enough, it’s possible to take this a step further.
Did you know that your Wi-FI (SSID) name is publicly mapped?
Because apps can receive the name of the Wi-Fi you’re connected to, this can also be used to find your exact address.
It is unknown whether TikTok is storing SSIDs or not. I would like to point out that they were not included in my personal TikTok’s data package that was delivered to me, however that doesn’t mean the information isn’t being stored.
6. Purchasing Data From Other Companies
Obviously, TikTok is not going to openly admit if they buy data, or who from.
However, this is an extremely common practice in the tech industry.
And considering TikTok regularly recommends people I’m friends with on Facebook or people I follow on Twitter (who are not phone contacts, and otherwise are not connected to my TikTok in any way), I do personally believe they are doing this.
Many people don’t realize how easy it is to tie their identities across different apps.
This is true even if you use different login information, emails, or phones entirely.
So much is being tracked these days, that having true privacy is harder than ever.
Why Location Is Important To TikTok
You may be wondering, why do they care so much? Why would TikTok bother going to such great lengths simply to track your location?
It really comes down to two things.
TikTok makes their money by showing you ads. They make more money when you spend a longer amount of time on the platform.
This is because more time spent on TikTok equates to more ads being exposed to you, while also giving TikTok more and more data about who you are and what you like.
So, not only do you see more ads, but the ads are more valuable to TikTok as well.
Knowing your location – even approximately, aids with both of these.
For one, videos that are local to you are more likely to be interesting and engaging. This is why TikTok often shows you other TikTokers from your same state or country.
Secondly, location targeting is extremely important to advertisers. They don’t want to waste money promoting their products to people who live in areas where they aren’t sold, for example.
As the pool of advertisers on TikTok grows, I expect to see TikTok attempt to get even more personal with the data they collect, in order to provide a more effective ad marketplace for their advertisers.
Advertisers are TikTok’s customers. You are the product!
When TikTok shows you videos from your local area, it’s likely not a coincidence.
TikTok has plenty of different ways they can find out your location, even if you never explicitly give them permission to track it.
That’s not to say they use every tactic mentioned in this article. Additionally, there may be methods used that you and I have never even heard of.
Considering how important location data can be however, it wouldn’t surprise me if they used every tool at their disposal.
I hope that this article was interesting to you. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.
– James McAllister