TikTok privacy settings to change now

The social media app is all about your personal data, likes and habits. Here’s how to limit what it gathers about you.

An illustrated collage with the TikTok logo and security icons.
(Illustration by Elena Lacey/The Washington Post)
6 min

TikTok is a simple social media app that serves up a never-ending stream of short, addictive videos. Even without posting anything, users are trading their own information for access to the free service and possibly exposing details about themselves to others.

There are a number of settings you can change on the app to make it a bit more private, both from the company and other people on the app. Your TikTok privacy needs will vary depending on how you’re using the short-video sharing app. If you’re churning out public content, hoping to go viral or just get some of those sweet likes, being visible can help. But if you’re just a quiet lurker, scrolling though video after video without creating content, you may want to stay as private as possible.

TikTok is owned by a Beijing-based company called ByteDance and has been banned in some countries, including India, over security and privacy concerns. It’s not that it collects more information than other social networks, but governments are concerned about how China might be able to access or use that information.

The social media app uses nearly everything it learns about you to determine what videos — and advertisements — it thinks you want to see. Its algorithm is famously a black box. And like most social media services, there’s no way to completely block it from learning information about you, aside from deleting the app. Still, you can narrow down what it collects.

If you do only one thing

Don’t share your contacts

The app will ask you repeatedly to share your smartphone contacts or link with your Facebook account. This information can reveal things about you and the people saved on your device. If you can, try finding friends by searching instead of handing over your entire social circle.

To check your current settings, open the app and click on your profile, the three lines in the top right corner. Tap Settings and Privacy → Privacy → Sync Contacts and Facebook Friends. If you’ve already synced your smartphone or Facebook contacts, you can remove them here and cut off access. Make sure both toggles are off and gray (green means it is on). You can also block access to your contacts in your Android or iOS privacy settings.

If you’re still concerned about privacy

Limit ad personalization

If you want to limit how much the company and outside advertisers are able to target you, TikTok has one option you can change.

Go to Settings and Privacy → Privacy → Ads Personalization and make sure the toggle for “Use of Off-TikTok Activity for Ad Targeting” is turned off and gray. This doesn’t stop TikTok from targeting ads but does limit the information it can use to do that.

Keep your profile anonymous

These steps aren’t just for people who browse TikTok. Creators should also be careful about how much identifiable information they share on the app to prevent issues like stalking or harassment.

  • Sign up for your account with an alias email address, like the kind you can create in Gmail or with Apple’s Hide My Email feature. It’s less private, but you can also use a junk-mail address you don’t share with acquaintances (so it isn’t in their address books). Keep this email out of your own address card on your smartphone, as well.
  • You don’t need to use a phone number to set up an account and should avoid giving the app your number when you create an account or later as part of your profile. However, if you do use 2-factor authentication for security (always a good idea) you can add your number in that field and it won’t be used to recommend your account to people.
  • Don’t put your full name in your profile if that information isn’t already tied to your online presence.
  • Use a unique handle. If you’re always VeggieVelma on services like Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, anyone can quickly track down your online presence. To keep things separate, use a one-time-only nickname for each app.

Make your account private

If you’re not posting for strangers, set your account to Private so you can approve who follows you. Go to Settings and Privacy → Privacy and turn the “Private Account” toggle on so it is green.

Limit how people can find you

If you’re not interested in having real-world acquaintances find you on TikTok, go to Settings and Privacy → Privacy → Suggest Your Account to Others. Make sure all four toggles are turned off and gray, not green, to prevent people you know from getting you as a follow suggestion. The app can still recommend people to you using these techniques, based on information others shared.

Hide what you like

The videos you like and the people you follow can reveal a lot about you, like an affinity for thirst traps. Go to Settings and Privacy → Privacy → and scroll down to the Safety section. Click on Following List and set to Only Me. Go back and do the same for Liked Videos. People can still see if you have mutual friends.

See (some of) what TikTok knows about you

There’s a way to see some of the data TikTok has amassed about you. In the app, Go to Settings → Privacy → Download your Data. It will take a few days, and you will then have only four days to download it.

If you want to be extra cautious

Don’t like things. Don’t follow people.

TikTok is famous for its algorithm, which uses signals about your behavior to show you more videos you like and, it hopes, keep you on the app longer. It can be eerily accurate. Some of the cues it uses are what videos you like and which people you follow. However, you can get a perfectly fine feed without doing any of those things ever. That’s because the app can also know things like demographic information, how long you watch a video and when you jump to the comments or dive into a person’s other posts. That’s enough to make your For You Page seem personalized even without the additional data.

Don’t use an account

You can browse TikTok without being logged in or having an account. The company can still collect data about you in this guest mode, including your IP address and device information, but it does cut down on how much it can gather.

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