Listen to this article Lawsuit Alleges TikTok’s Owner Created A ‘Backdoor’ To Enable CCP Access To US User Data
A wrongful termination lawsuit filed by Yintao Yu, a former engineering lead for ByteDance, the parent company of popular social media app TikTok, alleges that ByteDance created a backdoor channel in its code that allowed members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) access to user data hosted in the US.
Yu’s lawsuit claims that ByteDance granted special powers to a CCP unit called the “Committee,” allowing them to monitor the company’s business activities, demote content seen as unfavorable to China’s interests, and even use a “death switch” to turn off Chinese versions of its apps. The complaint also alleges that the “Committee” continued to have access to US user data even after ByteDance walled off access for individual engineers in China.
Yu specifically saw the backdoor channel in the code that permits certain high-level individuals to access user data, irrespective of its location, even if a US company hosts it with servers located in the US.
The Chinese law requires ByteDance to grant access to user data to the Chinese government.ByteDance terminated Yu’s employment in November 2018, shortly after the merger of TikTok with the lip-syncing app Musical.ly.TikTok had only 11 million monthly active users in the US in January of that year versus the more than 150 million users the company said it has today.
The complaint accuses the company of firing Yu because he observed and reported illegal conduct.
TikTok has repeatedly denied that it shares information with the Chinese government and has stated that US user data is stored in the US and Singapore. The company has also emphasized that its content moderation is led by a US-based team that operates independently from China. Since Yu’s time at the company, which ended in late 2018, TikTok has invested heavily in new ways to guard US user data, including a $1.5 billion data sovereignty initiative called Project Texas in partnership with Oracle.
The CCP’s Involvement
The lawsuit alleges that the internal CCP group had the task of ensuring that ByteDance adhered to “core Communist values” and, on occasion, they censored content related to events such as the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Politicians in Washington have been scrutinizing TikTok for months and have been debating whether the Chinese government could force its owner to grant access to US user data through its National Intelligence Law.
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