Amid questions about TikTok’s use of biometrics during today’s Congressional hearing, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew offered some insight into how the company may be investigating underage users on its platform. After denying the app collects body, facial or voice data to identify its users – beyond what is required for the in-app AR filters to work – the exec was asked how TikTok determines the age of its users.
The first answer from Chew was expected: the app uses age restriction. This refers to the common method of simply asking a user to provide their date of birth to determine their age. In TikTok, there are three different experiences: for users under 13, younger teens, and adults 18+ — which experience the user gets is based on this age input.
Relying solely on this method is of course a problem, as children often lie about their age when they sign up for social media apps and websites.
As it turns out, TikTok does more than look at the age entered in a text box.
During the hearing, Chew added that TikTok scans users’ videos to determine their age.
“We’ve also developed some tools where we look at their public profile, to browse the videos they post to see if…,” Chew began, before being interrupted by Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA), who interjected: “That’s scary. Tell me more about that.”
When Chew was able to continue, he explained, “It’s public. So when you post a video, you choose that video to make public – that’s how you make sure people see your video. We’re looking at that to see if it matches the age you talked about it,” he said.
“This is a real challenge for our industry because privacy versus age guarantee is a really big issue,” Chew said.
An interesting follow-up question to the CEO’s answer would have been to ask how TikTok scans these videos, what specific facial recognition or other technologies it uses, and whether those technologies are built in-house or if it relies on facial recognition technology. built by third parties. Then, of course, whether the data associating age with the user was stored permanently rather than being used, say, to simply boot the user from a TikTok LIVE stream.
Unfortunately for us, Carter didn’t continue with this line of questioning.
Instead, he accused the CEO of dismissing age verification as an industry-wide problem.
“We’re talking about dying children!” he exclaimed, referring to the dangerous challenges that have allowed apps like TikTok and others to go viral, such as the blackout challenge. (That challenge resulted in TikTok deleting some half a million accounts in Italy at the request of the local regulator to block underage users from its platform.)
The reality is that age verification is an industry-wide concern and the lack of US laws surrounding children’s use of social media is leading companies like TikTok and others to develop their own processes.
For example, Instagram started verifying users’ ages last year by offering users a choice of three options. Users can upload an ID, record a video selfie, or ask mutual friends to verify their age on their behalf. The latter is relatively easy to get around if you have close friends willing to lie for you.
Earlier this month, Instagram rolled out its age verification tools in Canada and Mexico, in addition to existing support in the US, Brazil, and Japan. The company had previously said it was partnering with London-based digital identity startup Yoti for the video selfie portion of the age verification process.
Instagram has also previously explained at a high level how it identifies which users it suspects are underage.
In addition to investigating flagged accounts, the company claims it has developed AI technology that it uses to deduce someone’s age. The model has an understanding of how people in the same age group tend to interact with content. Another way it can identify an underage user who is lying about his or her age is by scanning the comments on “Happy Birthday” posts where a user’s age is referenced. Plus, Instagram said it could try to match a user’s age on Facebook with their stated age on Instagram, along with using “many other signals” that it doesn’t make public.
TikTok’s technique has been less clear. The company does document how to verify your age if it has misidentified you, such as if you were kicked off LIVE for looking too young. (Last fall, TikTok announced it was raising the age requirement for using its in-app live streaming service, TikTok LIVE, to 18, down from 16).
Last year, Bloomberg reported that TikTok met with two vendors of facial age estimation software in 2021. Both companies offered software that could tell the difference between children and adults, but a TikTok executive rejected the deals over fears that these types of facial scans would lead to fears that China was spying on child users, the report said.
Today the US had the TikTok CEO in the hot seat, ready to explain the actual techniques TikTok uses for age determination, and all we got were screaming, brazen politicians putting on a show instead of getting real answers.