A former executive at TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has claimed in court documents that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had access to TikTok data, despite the data being stored in the US. The allegations were made in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit which was filed in May in the San Francisco Superior Court.
The former executive is Yintao “Roger” Yu, who worked as head of engineering for ByteDance. Yu worked for ByteDance between 2017 and 2018. According to his claims, the CCP had its own office inside ByteDance’s headquarters.
In the lawsuit he also accuses ByteDance of pushing nationalistic content that served to both increase engagement on ByteDance’s websites and to promote support of the CCP, and that the Communist Party could access American user data through what he called a backdoor channel in the code.
That statement was supported by recent events. The Australian Financial Review has been shown a sample of code to secretly suppress or elevate content that supports Communist Party narratives or sows division within democracies. This is exactly the reason why General Paul Nakasone, Director of the National Security Agency (NSA) called TikTok a loaded gun. Speaking at a US Senate hearing, the general said “one third of Americans get their news from TikTok,” adding “one sixth of American youth say they’re constantly on TikTok.”
Even more shocking is the claim that the CCP not only could access US user data via a backdoor channel in the code but also that some members of the ruling Communist Party used data held by the company to identify and locate protesters in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous region in China with its own government. TikTok is no longer available there. Anyone who tries to open TikTok from within Hong Kong will see a message that reads “We regret to inform you that we have discontinued operating TikTok in Hong Kong.”
He also accused ByteDance of scraping data from competitors, mainly Instagram and Snapchat, without users’ permission.
After being banned from devices of employees of several—mostly government—organizations, TikTok is battling to convince politicians that it operates independently of ByteDance, which has deep ties to the CCP. Yu’s suit alleges that ByteDance was aware that if the Chinese government’s backdoor was removed from the US version of the app, the Chinese government would likely ban the company’s valuable Chinese-version apps.
Responding to Yu’s allegations, ByteDance said it will “vigorously oppose what we believe are baseless claims and allegations in this complaint.” It is “committed to respecting the intellectual property of other companies” and obtains data “in accordance with industry practices and our global policy.”
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