ByteDance, the owner of TikTok, has been accused of permitting members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to access the data of Hong Kong civil rights activists and protesters.
Users who uploaded "content related to protests" were also identified and monitored, according to a US court filing by former ByteDance executive Yintao Yu. Mr. Yu asserts that CCP members had access to US TikTok user data.
A ByteDance representative denied the allegations, characterizing them as "unfounded." The allegations are contained in a document filed this week in San Francisco Superior Court as part of Mr. Yu's lawsuit.
Mr. Yu claimed in his filing that members of a CCP committee had access to a "superuser" credential, also known as a "god user" credential, which allowed them to view all ByteDance data. Moreover, he asserted that the committee members were not ByteDance employees, but were literally present at the company's Beijing offices.
Mr. Yu, who served as ByteDance's director of engineering in the United States for approximately a year beginning in August 2017 and ending in July 2018, stated that this was common knowledge among senior executives. In 2018, CCP committee members used their deity credentials to identify and locate Hong Kong protesters, civil rights activists, and protest supporters, according to the filing.
In 2014, Hong Kong witnessed massive protests, the so-called Umbrella Movement, in which people demanded the right to elect their own leader. Thereafter, civil rights activists engaged in smaller-scale demonstrations. Since Beijing enacted a harsh national security law following the 2019 anti-government protests, a significant portion of this visible dissent has vanished.
When contacted by the sources, a ByteDance spokesperson denied vehemently the allegations and stated that the company intends to vigorously defend itself against what it considers to be unfounded claims and allegations in the complaint.
It is perplexing that Mr. Yu has never brought up these allegations in the five years since his dismissal from Flipagram in July 2018. His actions are obviously designed to attract media attention, the ByteDance representative said.
Mr. Yu's claims are made at a time when TikTok is under intense global scrutiny. Both Democrats and Republicans interrogated Mr. Chew regarding the app's data privacy and security practices, as well as its supposed links to Beijing.
A representative for TikTok subsequently stated that the politicians were grandstanding. Montana was the first state in the United States to impose a ban on the Chinese-owned video-sharing platform in May. The ban will become effective in January 2024. It will be unlawful for app stores to distribute TikTok, but those who already have it can continue to use it.
TikTok has filed a lawsuit to prevent Montana from implementing the prohibition, arguing that it violates US free speech rights. In December of 2017, the state of Montana, which has an estimated population of slightly more than one million, banned the app from government-owned devices.
According to TikTok, there are 150 million American consumers. Although the app's user base has increased over the past few years, it is still most popular among teenagers and users in their twenties.