A UK journalist recently discovered that employees of China’s TikTok were tracking her personal data through an account devoted to her cat, without her knowledge or consent. Chinese employees of the company were attempting to determine who was meeting with the journalist by comparing her location to employee locations — even though the account didn’t have her name on it.
Financial Times technology correspondent Cristina Criddle received a phone call from TikTok in December, informing her two of the app’s employees in China, and two in the U.S., had viewed user data from her personal account, according to a report by BBC News.
“It was just really chilling and horrible and, personally, quite violating,” Criddle said. “I was at my family home with my teenage sister, teenage cousins — and they all use TikTok all of the time. They were like, ‘Whoa, should we be worried?’”
Members of TikTok’s internal audit department had reportedly looked at the location of the journalist’s IP address, and compared it with the IP data of an unknown number of their own staff, in an attempt to figure out who was secretly meeting with the press.
“If my location was being monitored 24/7, that’s not just limited to my actions at work — which wouldn’t be OK even if it was — but this was in my personal life as well,” Criddle said. “It was when I was out with my friends, when I was going on holiday, all of that stuff’s in there.”
“The real threat and the real chilling thing is that I was just trying to do my job,” the journalist added.
Criddle added that her TikTok account was on her personal mobile phone, and that the name on the account was her cat, Buffy. She added that her real name and occupation were not on the TikTok account.
Surrey University professor and cyber security expert Alan Woodward told BBC that this level of tracking “cannot be described as accidental or even incidental.”
“Someone had to do some extra digging to work out that the cat account was in fact Cristina,” Woodward said.
Criddle is unsure how long she has been tracked, but noted that last summer she had been talking to TikTok employees who were unhappy with the company’s practices.
The journalist has since curtailed both her own and Buffy’s activity across other social media platforms. As for her usage of TikTok, Criddle says she is keeping her account open, because she still needs to access the Chinese app for work — but she only logs into TikTok from a dummy handset that she keeps at her office.
“I have really had to think about my safety — mostly my digital safety,” she said. “I’m super-careful now. I have to make sure that there is no chance that my devices are being tracked. I have to make sure that my sources are aware of the possible challenges to their safety as well.”
While TikTok’s Chinese parent company Bytedance says it “deeply regrets” what it called a “significant violation” of its code of conduct and claims it is “committed to ensuring this never happens again,” this is not the first time ByteDance has been caught spying.
An inquiry late last year into ByteDance found that its employees obtained the private user data of two U.S. journalists.
You can follow Alana Mastrangelo on Facebook and Twitter at @ARmastrangelo, and on Instagram.
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