Yintao “Roger” Yu, former head of engineering for TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, said in a legal filing disclosed by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on Monday that the company granted agents of the Chinese Communist Party access to users’ personal data in Hong Kong in 2018.
ByteDance has claimed its user data is secure and not accessible to Chinese intelligence, even though it — and every other Chinese corporation, state-owned or not — is legally required to instantly and quietly provide all such data to Chinese agents upon request.
In November 2022, ByteDance admitted that its employees in China have access to user data from Europe and the United States. The company claimed this access was necessary for the employees to “do their job” and said none of the sensitive user data had been handed over to the Chinese government.
Yu, who worked for ByteDance in both China and the United States from 2017 to 2018, filed a complaint against the company in San Francisco Superior Court last month. Yu claimed he was wrongfully dismissed from his position as head of engineering because he voiced his concerns about a “worldwide scheme” by ByteDance to steal intellectual property.
Yu voiced a lot of concerns in his initial court filing, including the chilling detail that a “Committee” of Chinese Communist Party officials monitors everything ByteDance does, grants its approval based on how each corporate move advances “core Communist values,” and could instantly shut down the TikTok app if ByteDance did not meet its standards.
“The [Chinese Communist Party] Committee maintained supreme access to all the company data, even data stored in the United States,” Yu said in his May court case.
“Any engineer in Beijing could access U.S. user data located in the U.S. After receiving criticism about access from abroad, individual engineers in China were restricted from accessing U.S. user data, but the Committee continued to have access,” he said.
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U.S. House of Representatives
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According to Yu, the Committee urged ByteDance to manipulate search results on TikTok and its Chinese sister service, Douyin, to reflect Chinese Communist Party political imperatives such as downplaying the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement or stoking “anti-Japanese sentiments” among the Chinese population.
Yu also claimed TikTok padded out its thin content at launch by copying videos and other material from established services like Instagram and by creating hordes of bot users to make TikTok appear much more popular than it actually was at the time.
ByteDance denied Yu’s allegations as “baseless,” arguing that he worked for the company for less than a year and was not deeply involved with TikTok.
In the new filing described by the WSJ, Yu said members of the Chinese Communist Party “Committee” overseeing ByteDance operations accessed TikTok user data — including “network information, SIM card identifications, and IP addresses” — in an effort to identify and monitor Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in 2018.
The WSJ noted that ByteDance withdrew TikTok from Hong Kong in 2020 after the Chinese government illegally imposed a draconian “national security law” to crush the pro-democracy movement. ByteDance said the national security law, which criminalizes virtually all criticism of the Chinese government, made Hong Kong too risky for the rambunctious TikTok video blogging platform.
Yu’s lawyer Charles Jung said the new filing was made in response to misleading testimony by TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew, who told the U.S. Congress in March that TikTok does not provide any data to the Chinese Communist Party or follow its political directives. He also insisted TikTok does not deliberately spread content harmful to children.
“We do not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government,” Chew testified.
Related: TikTok CEO Does Not Deny ByteDance Has Access to Americans’ Data
House Committee on Energy and Commerce
Jung said Yu was “placing himself at risk” by disclosing more information about TikTok to the court. “The truth is powerful, and telling the truth is what’s needed to bring social change,” he said.
Yu’s new filing said that contrary to ByteDance’s denials, the Chinese Communist Party “Committee” retains super-user access to all of the company’s data and has a “backdoor” it can use to access user data stored in the United States.
Yu’s filing said:
The location of the servers doesn’t protect U.S. data: what matters is whether the backdoor has been closed. The company was aware that if the Chinese government’s backdoor was removed from the international/U.S. version of the app, the Chinese government would, it feared, ban the company’s valuable Chinese-version apps.
Yu’s amended complaint said ByteDance has “served as a useful propaganda tool for the Chinese Communist Party,” and it has accumulated enough data about its foreign users to manipulate them with propaganda as well.
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