Former TikTok Employees Say U.S. User Data Could Be Shared with China

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(Illustration: Florence Lo/Reuters)

Last year’s furor over TikTok, the popular social-media app owned by China’s ByteDance, has subsided. Although TikTok faced threats from President Trump, litigation halted the administration’s implementation of executive orders that would ban the app. Then, earlier this month, President Biden repealed those orders and said he would instead develop a broader framework with which to deal with Chinese tech.

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None of this would block Biden from taking future action to restrict TikTok’s operations, as the administration crafts a broader framework to confront Chinese apps that might be sharing U.S. users’ data with the Chinese government. (Chinese law requires firms to comply with law-enforcement requests for data.) As White House officials set out their next steps for countering that threat, they should consider that ByteDance and TikTok have repeatedly lied to U.S. consumers about the data they share with Beijing.

New revelations, detailed at length in a CNBC piece Friday, show just how intimately TikTok is tied with ByteDance, despite the companies’ claims that there is a division between their operations. Interviews with five former TikTok employees demonstrate how the two companies were essentially one and the same, even to the point where many TikTok employees have email addresses for both companies. “They’re concerned about the popular social media app’s Chinese parent company, which they say has access to American user data and is actively involved in the Los Angeles company’s decision-making and product development.”

One of these concerns they expressed is that ByteDance employees in China are easily able to access specific U.S. users’ data:

This was highlighted in a situation where an American employee working on TikTok needed to get a list of global users, including Americans, who searched for or interacted with a specific type of content — that means users who searched for a specific term or hashtag or liked a particular category of videos. This employee had to reach out to a data team in China in order to access that information. The data the employee received included users’ specific IDs, and they could pull up whatever information TikTok had about those users. This type of situation was confirmed as a common occurrence by a second employee.

The worries also extended to TikTok’s very place in the larger ByteDance enterprise. The CNBC team reports, “Direction and approvals for all kinds of decision-making, whether it be minor contracts or key strategies, come from ByteDance’s leadership, which is based in China.” Unsurprisingly, the exposé also reveals that nearly all of TikTok’s product development comes from ByteDance.

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When Trump issued orders to force the sale of, or otherwise ban, TikTok last year, there was some criticism mixed with bipartisan agreement that the widespread use of the app is concerning. Although the political debate faded away, the threat remains — making it all the more important that there’s broader understanding of the degree to which TikTok can likely be required to share specific information about American citizens with a foreign power that could conceivably use it to the detriment of U.S. national security.

And recognizing this also requires recognition of dubious claims peddled by the company’s advocates in the U.S. When TikTok was fighting Trump’s efforts last fall, Roland Cloutier, TikTok’s global chief security officer, claimed that the app’s algorithm is “entirely separate” from that of Douyin’s — ByteDance’s TikTok-like app for use in China. In a court filing, Cloutier claimed that algorithms for TikTok and Douyin were held “entirely separately,” that U.S. claims stating TikTok stored U.S. user data with Chinese companies (and would therefore be required to validate Chinese officials’ requests for it) were false, and that TikTok would not comply with Chinese requests for user data.

These claims might have reeked of dishonesty back then, but with this new report, the Biden White House has no choice but to take the previous administration’s lead on the issue.

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