A government operated Missouri website that offers information about COVID-19 contains TikTok's ad-tracking technology, researchers at Princeton University reported this week.
“Covidvaccine.mo.gov, Missouri’s official COVID website that helps people locate vaccine and testing locations and find important health information, has embedded third party tracking cookies run by TikTok,” researchers Yash Parikh and Mihir Kshirsagar wrote on Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy's Freedom to Tinker blog. “The inspection reveals that TikTok has three cookies on the site, all related to personalizing users’ advertisements on the TikTok app. These cookies do not expire for over a year, meaning that TikTok can identify returning visitors. This data also concerns potentially sensitive health-related information.”
The authors add that Missouri isn't alone: Other states that operate sites also host third-party trackers -- likely because the government “uses web developers who deploy off-the-shelf designs and commercial services that have third-party tracking built into the infrastructure.”
Missouri's site also has ad trackers from other companies.
The report doesn't address what, if anything, TikTok may have done with data from Missouri's COVID site. Cookies typically contain only pseudonymous data, and it's not clear whether TikTok attempted to match that data to information that would reveal users' names. It's also not clear whether TikTok filtered out any sensitive data that may have been transmitted.
News that a government-run site may have sent data to the Chinese-owned TikTok comes as some lawmakers are pressing to ban the app over privacy and security concerns.
Last month, Montana became the first state to pass legislation banning use of the app -- although it's not clear whether the law will hold up in court. TikTok and some users are seeking to block the new law as unconstitutional.
Numerous other states have prohibited use of the app on government-owned devices.
TikTok's tracking technology has been found on numerous non-governmental sites -- including those operated by Weight Watchers, Planned Parenthood and the Girl Scouts of America -- according to a September 2022 report by Consumer Reports. Tracking tools from Meta and Google were also found throughout the web, and were far more prevalent than TikTok's according to Consumer Reports.