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China used data from TikTok to track Hong Kong protesters, says former ByteDance executive

ByteDance says its former employee's claims are unfounded
ByteDance says its former employee's claims are unfounded Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Associated Press
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This is the latest in a series of allegations brought against the short video sharing platform and its China-based parent company.

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A former executive at ByteDance, the Chinese company which owns the popular short-video app TikTok, has claimed that some members of the ruling Communist Party used data held by the company to identify and locate protesters in Hong Kong.

In a legal filing, Yintao Yu, formerly head of engineering for ByteDance in the US, says those same people had access to US user data, an accusation that the company denies.

Yu, who worked for the company in 2018, made the allegations in a recent filing for a wrongful dismissal case filed in May in the San Francisco Superior Court.

In the documents submitted to the court, he said ByteDance had a "superuser" credential - also known as a "god credential" - that enabled a special committee of Chinese Communist Party members stationed at the company to view all data collected by ByteDance including those of US users.

Use of a 'god credential'

The credential acted as a "backdoor to any barrier ByteDance had supposedly installed to protect data from the CCP’s surveillance," the filing says.

Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous region in China with its own government. In recent years, following mass protests in 2014 and 2019, the former British colony has come under more far-reaching control by Beijing.

Yu said he saw the god credential being used to keep tabs on Hong Kong protesters and civil rights activists by monitoring their locations and devices, their network information, SIM card identifications, IP addresses, and communications.

ByteDance said in a statement that Yu’s accusations were "baseless".

"It’s curious that Mr Yu has never raised these allegations in the five years since his employment for Flipagram was terminated in July 2018," the company said, referring to an app that ByteDance later shut down for business reasons. 

"His actions are clearly intended to garner media attention," ByteDance added.

"We plan to vigorously oppose what we believe are baseless claims and allegations in this complaint".

Charles Jung, Yu’s lawyer and a partner at the law firm Nassiri & Jung, said Yu chose to raise the allegations because he was "disturbed to hear the recent Congressional testimony of TikTok’s CEO" when Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean, vehemently denied Chinese authorities had access to user data.

"Telling the truth openly in court is risky, but social change requires the courage to tell the truth," Jung said. "It’s important to him that public policy be based on accurate information, so he’s determined to tell his story".

Tensions continue to rise over TikTok

TikTok is under intense scrutiny in the US and worldwide over how it handles data and whether it poses a national security risk. Some American lawmakers have expressed concern that TikTok’s ties to ByteDance means the data it holds is subject to Chinese law.

They also contend that the app, which has over 150 million monthly active users in the US and more than a billion users worldwide, could be used to expand China’s influence.

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During the combative March House hearing, lawmakers from both parties grilled Chew over his company’s alleged ties to Beijing, data security, and harmful content on the app. Chew repeatedly denied TikTok shares user data or has any ties with Chinese authorities.

To allay such concerns, TikTok has said that it would work with Oracle to store all US data within the country.

In an earlier court filing, Yu accused ByteDance of serving as a “propaganda tool” for the Chinese Communist Party by promoting nationalistic content and demoting content that does not serve the party’s aims. He also said that ByteDance was responsive to the Communist Party's requests to share information.

Yu also accused ByteDance of scraping content from competitors and users to repost on its sites to exaggerate key engagement metrics. He says he was fired for sharing his concerns about "wrongful conduct" he saw with others in the company.

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In mainland China, ByteDance operates Douyin, which is targeted at the domestic market. 

TikTok is a global app that is available in most other countries. It was also available in Hong Kong until TikTok pulled out of the market in 2020 following the imposition of a sweeping national security law.

Anyone who tries to open TikTok from within Hong Kong will see a message that reads "We regret to inform you that we have discontinued operating TikTok in Hong Kong".

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