Unlike other social apps, TikTok didn’t become a global success by connecting people with their friends and family. Its stated mission is to “inspire creativity and build joy,” a far cry from Facebook’s goal to “bring the world closer together.” The app’s central feature, the For You Page algorithm, primarily recommends videos based on what users like, not whether they were uploaded by someone they know. But recently, it appears that’s started to change.
While TikTok to date has been an app where you could largely expect never to run into annoying uncles, ex-boyfriends, or coworkers, the platform is now making a greater effort to connect users to people they already have relationships with outside the platform. Eight TikTok users told WIRED that over the last few months, the app has begun encouraging them to follow people from real life. It’s also become a common complaint among the TikTok faithful more broadly, raising privacy concerns about the tactics the app uses to establish who they know in the first place.
“The safety and privacy of our community is paramount which is why we provide a range of privacy settings and opt-in features that empower people to customize their app experience to their own comfort and enjoyment,” a spokesperson for TikTok said in a statement.
Alex, a 27-year-old living in Queens, says that one night earlier this year she checked her TikTok notifications and was startled to realize that her father had followed her profile. She quickly blocked him, but the incident was unsettling because she often posts about being bisexual, something her father didn’t know about her at the time.
“While I had been considering coming out to him recently, I feel that choice was taken away from me,” Alex says. Her profile includes her name, but she still thought the risk of her father discovering it was low given how TikTok works. “I was surprised that he found me because of our differing beliefs and interests. I never would’ve guessed the algorithm would show him my videos, so I never worried about him finding my profile,” Alex says.
While it’s possible that her father actively sought out her account, he likely wouldn’t have even had to. Like many social media platforms, TikTok allows users to find people they know by syncing their phone contacts or Facebook friends. If you provided a phone number when you signed up and listed your age as over 16, by default TikTok will “suggest your account to phone contacts,” according to the app’s privacy settings. If someone has your number—and you provided it to TikTok—they can find your profile unless you actively opt out.
TikTok needs permission to access your contact list, but two users say they didn’t realize they had opted into the feature until a WIRED reporter asked them to check. “I make a point never to do that,” says Michael Waters, a writer who lives in Brooklyn, who suspects he accidentally clicked on a pop-up message. A number of people on Twitter have also reported syncing their contacts with TikTok unwittingly.
There are other ways TikTok finds out who you know in real life. By default, the app suggests your profile “to people who have mutual connections with you.” That includes users who follow or are followed by the same accounts, like how Facebook recommends people to one another who have friends in common.