Former executive of TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, Yintao “Roger” Yu, has filed a lawsuit alleging that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had “supreme access” to all user data, including that stored in the US. Yu, who was the head of engineering for ByteDance’s US office from 2017 to 2018, said that he was dismissed from his job after he reported the company’s “brazenly unlawful conduct.” He claimed that a special unit referred to as “The Committee” played a significant role in guiding the company and had backdoor access to all data, including that stored in the US. ByteDance denied the allegations, calling them “baseless.”
TikTok, the popular short-form video app, has been under intense scrutiny due to concerns over its ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A former executive of TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, has recently claimed that the CCP has backdoor access to all the user data, including data stored in the US. In this article, we will explore the allegations made by the former executive and the response of ByteDance to these claims.
Allegations Made by the Former Executive
According to Yu, ByteDance gave the CCP “supreme access” to all data generated on the TikTok app. He further alleged that inside the Beijing-based company, the CCP had a special office or unit, sometimes referred to as the “Committee,” that played a significant role in guiding how the company advanced core Communist values. Yu claimed that he was terminated from his job after he complained to supervisors about “brazenly unlawful conduct” at the company.
Yu further alleged that his former superiors dismissed his concerns when he brought their attention to the tech firm stealing copyrighted content from other platforms, including Instagram and Snapchat, and manufacturing users to boost its metrics. He claimed that this was done to help China’s Communist Party spread propaganda to a larger audience.
Yu was appalled by the “misdirection” of TikTok Chief Executive Officer Shou Chew’s March testimony before Congress to allay national security concerns about the platform’s ties to China. Yu said it was known within the company that a special government-controlled committee had a significant role, even though it did not work for ByteDance. The Committee maintained supreme access to all the company data, including data stored in the United States.
Yu alleges the company was driven by a “culture of lawlessness” that focused on growth at all costs. He was surprised by the brazenly unlawful conduct within the company, which was euphemistically excused as “entrepreneurship,” according to the complaint.
ByteDance has termed these allegations “baseless” and said that it will contest the claims made by the former employee in the court. “ByteDance is committed to respecting the intellectual property of other companies, and we acquire data in accordance with industry practices and our global policy,” a spokesperson said in a statement, which noted that Yu worked for the company for less than a year, reports Bloomberg.
The company also claims that individual engineers in China were restricted from accessing US user data after receiving criticism about access from abroad. ByteDance has repeatedly stated that TikTok is not influenced by the CCP and that the user data is stored in the US and Singapore.
The Culture of Lawlessness
Yu alleges that the company was driven by a “culture of lawlessness” that focused on growth at all costs. “He was surprised by the brazenly unlawful conduct within the company, which was euphemistically excused as ‘entrepreneurship,’” according to the complaint.
Soon after he joined the company in 2017, Yu learned that ByteDance had for years undertaken a “worldwide scheme (including in California) to steal and profit from the copyrighted works of others,” according to the complaint. He also discovered that the company was programming fabricated users to “like” and “follow” real user accounts to boost the engagement metrics relied on by potential investors, according to the complaint.
TikTok has been under intense scrutiny from Congress and a federal national security review over concerns about the platform’s ties to China. In December 2020, former President Donald Trump attempted to ban TikTok, citing national security concerns. In response, TikTok filed a lawsuit, and the ban was blocked by multiple courts. However, the scrutiny has not stopped, and TikTok has been hit with a $15.9 million fine in the UK.
The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) imposed the fine on TikTok for allegedly violating the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by failing to protect children’s personal data. The ICO claims that TikTok’s app “exposed children to inappropriate material” and allowed them to use their personal data, including their videos, without their consent.
This is not the first time that TikTok has faced such allegations. In July 2019, TikTok was fined $5.7 million by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for violating children’s privacy laws. The FTC alleged that TikTok had collected personal information from children under the age of 13 without obtaining parental consent.
In September 2020, TikTok announced that it was forming a new “Transparency Center” in the US, which would allow outside experts to review the company’s policies and procedures regarding data privacy and security. However, these recent allegations by Yu have once again put the spotlight on TikTok’s ties to China and the potential risks associated with the platform’s data privacy and security.
The outcome of this lawsuit will be closely watched, as it may have far-reaching implications for the future of TikTok and other Chinese-owned tech companies operating in the US and other Western countries. It also highlights the importance of robust data protection laws and regulations to safeguard the privacy and security of users’ data, particularly when it comes to global tech giants with access to vast amounts of sensitive information.
National Security Concerns
TikTok has been under intense scrutiny from Congress and a federal national security review over concerns about its data practices and its ties to the CCP. The concerns about TikTok’s data practices have led to several countries, including India and the United States, banning the app.
In 2020, former President Donald Trump issued an executive order to ban TikTok from the US, citing national security concerns. However, the ban was later halted by court orders, and the new Biden administration has put the Trump-era orders under review.
The US Department of Commerce also initiated a security review of TikTok in 2020. This review resulted in a proposed ban of TikTok and WeChat, another Chinese-owned app, which was later blocked by a federal judge.
The allegations made by Yintao “Roger” Yu, the former executive of ByteDance, are serious and raise questions about TikTok’s data practices and its ties to the CCP. The company’s response to these claims is that they are baseless, and it will contest them in court. However, these allegations underscore the need for greater scrutiny of TikTok’s data practices and its ties to China. It remains to be seen how this will impact the future of the app in the US and other countries.
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