In a shocking twist, ByteDance, the parent company of popular social media platform TikTok, has been accused of allowing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members to access the data of Hong Kong civil rights activists and protesters. Former ByteDance executive Yintao Yu has alleged in a US court filing that users who uploaded “protest-related content” were identified and monitored. Furthermore, the CCP members allegedly had access to US TikTok user data. ByteDance has vehemently denied these claims, dismissing them as baseless. These allegations have emerged as part of a lawsuit brought by Mr. Yu in San Francisco Superior Court.
The Filing’s Startling Revelations
According to Mr. Yu’s filing, members of a CCP committee had access to a “superuser” credential, also known as “god user,” granting them the ability to view all data collected by ByteDance. Notably, these committee members were not ByteDance employees but were physically present at the company’s Beijing offices. This information was reportedly known among senior executives. Mr. Yu, who served as a head of engineering in the US for ByteDance from August 2017 for about a year, made these claims in the court filing.
Identifying and Targeting Hong Kong Activists
The filing also alleges that in 2018, CCP committee members utilized their “god credential” to “identify and locate the Hong Kong protesters, civil rights activists, and supporters of the protests.” Hong Kong experienced significant protests in 2014, known as the Umbrella Movement, where citizens demanded the right to elect their own leader. Subsequently, civil rights activists staged smaller demonstrations. However, much of the visible dissent has diminished since Beijing’s implementation of a stringent national security law following the anti-government protests in 2019.
ByteDance’s Denial and the TikTok Landscape
When approached by the BBC, a ByteDance spokesperson vehemently denied the allegations, stating that the company plans to vigorously oppose the claims made in the complaint, considering them baseless. Additionally, they highlighted that Mr. Yu’s employment with ByteDance lasted less than a year and was focused on a now-discontinued app called Flipagram. The spokesperson expressed curiosity regarding why Mr. Yu had not raised these allegations since his employment termination in July 2018 and suggested that his actions seemed intended to gain media attention.
These accusations against ByteDance come at a time when TikTok is facing scrutiny worldwide. TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, recently faced extensive questioning at a US congressional hearing regarding the app’s data security, privacy practices, and alleged connections to Beijing. In May, Montana became the first US state to pass a comprehensive ban on the Chinese-owned video-sharing platform, set to take effect in January 2024. However, TikTok has filed a lawsuit to block Montana’s ban, citing conflicts with free speech rights. With over 150 million American users, TikTok remains popular primarily among teenagers and users in their twenties.