The ongoing debate over whether or not TikTok parent company ByteDance has access to user data has become less a question of “Does it or doesn’t it?” and more “Just how much does it have? And who exactly has access to it?”
Yintao Yu, who served as the U.S. head of engineering at ByteDance from August 2017 to November 2018, alleges that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had “supreme access” to all ByteDance data, including that of U.S. users, The New York Times reported.
Yu, who is suing the company for wrongful dismissal, claims that the CCP had a designated unit at ByteDance’s Beijing office — sometimes referred to as the “Committee” — and members of the CCP monitored the company and “guided how it advanced core Communist values,” per the complaint.
“The Committee maintained supreme access to all the company data, even data stored in the United States,” the lawsuit alleges. Although members of the committee didn’t officially work for ByteDance, the CCP “played a significant role,” and the tech giant became a “useful propaganda tool for the Chinese Communist Party.”
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The data was made available to the CCP through a “backdoor channel,” Yu claims, and included all company data regardless of location — making U.S. user data no exception.
In his lawsuit, Yu also accuses the company of “lawlessness,” citing one example of ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming bribing Lu Wei, a senior government official in charge of internet regulation.
Yu also alleges the company used questionable practices to increase engagement on TikTok, such as posting copied content from Instagram and Snapchat without permission and deploying “fabricated users,” which were essentially bots made to interact with content and boost engagement numbers.
“We plan to vigorously oppose what we believe are baseless claims and allegations,” a ByteDance spokesperson told Entrepreneur.
Additionally, there seems to be a debate over Yu’s tenure with the company. Although he claims to have worked at ByteDance for nearly 16 months, a spokesperson said he was with the company for less than a year.
“Mr. Yu worked for ByteDance Inc. for less than a year and his employment ended in July 2018,” the spokesperson said — a claim that Yu is also disputing in his lawsuit.
Yu’s complaint — baseless or not — is based on ByteDance’s operations five years ago and may not apply to its current data practices. Still, it comes at a time when the company faces intense scrutiny in the U.S. over data privacy concerns.
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