China is Accessing TikTok User Data, Court Filings Say

(Photo Credit: Solen Feyissa/Unsplash)
(Photo Credit: Solen Feyissa/Unsplash)

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A TikTok insider has confirmed Washington’s worst suspicion about what Beijing might be doing with all that data. His proof? Well, he didn’t really have any, but he swears it’s happening.

In court filings this week, a former employee of TikTok’s parent company ByteDance claimed the Chinese Communist Party has accessed the app’s user data for surveillance and political purposes. Although he offered no evidence beyond his testimony, Congress is no doubt inclined to take him at his word. Even more so after news that Beijing plans to install a military listening post in Cuba. (If this is the sequel to the Cold War, could they at least have given us a new locale.)

Caught Not So Red Handed

Shadowy threats to national security have been hot-button issues in Congress since before the Zimmerman telegram, but right now, Washington’s crosshairs are focused on TikTok, the China-born video-sharing app full of dance challenges, unboxings, ASMR recordings, and a whole bunch of other stuff to waste your time. Much of the US government believes TikTok could or would provide user information to the CCP thanks to Beijing’s near omnipotent and unfettered grasp on Chinese businesses. It’s great fodder to ramp up patriotism and support for the trade war against China, but new testimony is hardly a smoking gun.

Yintao Yu, a former executive in the US for ByteDance, alleged that the CCP spied on protestors in Hong Kong in 2018. He claims the government used “backdoor” access to TikTok to identify and track protestors’ locations and messages. But Yu, who’s also suing TikTok for wrongful termination in California, provided no physical evidence in his court filings, so you’ll literally have to take his word for it. Right now, the situation feels similar to ex-intelligence officer Davd Grusch claiming that the US government has a secret cache of alien spacecraft — I want to believe, but show me some proof:

  • Yu claims he saw access logs that showed CCP officials using a “god credential” to go around security measures and retrieve TikTok data. He made the allegations under penalty of perjury. Information security experts told CNN that Yu’s claim appears to be the first to identify a specific circumstance where the CCP has actually accessed TikTok data.
  • In a statement, ByteDance said the claims are nonsense and that Yu is just a clout chaser: “It’s curious that Mr. Yu has never raised these allegations in the five years since his employment for Flipagram (another ByteDance app) was terminated in July 2018. His actions are clearly intended to garner media attention.”

Drop It: China is planning more tech crackdowns in the name of national security as Beijing adds to restrictions on programs that allow short-range file-sharing without internet access like Apple’s AirDrop, a technology reportedly used by protestors at zero-Covid and anti-government demonstrations. You Yunting, a senior partner at Shanghai DeBund Law Offices, told The Wall Street Journal that under the proposed rules, if authorities request data on the grounds of security, file-sharing operators will likely have to hand over phone numbers and ID data of people who have sent information using the services. We have a pitch for Netflix: Black (Two-Way) Mirror.