Former executive of TikTok parent company claims China ‘maintained’ access to US data

A former executive for TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has claimed that the Chinese government “maintained” access to the company’s U.S. data. 

Yintao Yu, who served as the head of engineering for ByteDance’s U.S. operations from August 2017 to November 2018, filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court for San Francisco County earlier this month alleging wrongful termination for serving as a whistleblower exposing what Yu considered to be unethical and illegal practices. 

He alleged in a complaint filed on Friday that the Chinese Communist Party has used ByteDance as a “propaganda tool” to suppress or promote content based on what is favorable to the country’s interests. 

The complaint alleges that the Chinese government has been able to monitor ByteDance’s work from its headquarters in Beijing and has provided the company with guidance on advancing “core communist values.” 

“The Committee maintained supreme access to all the company data, even data stored in the United States,” the complaint states. 

He told The New York Times in an interview that he saw engineers for the Chinese version of TikTok push content that spread anti-Japanese sentiment. Yu explained that data for U.S. users of TikTok was stored in the U.S. while he worked for the company, but engineers in China still had access to it. 

A spokesperson for ByteDance told The Hill that Yu worked for the company for less than a year, during which he worked on an app called Flipagram, which was discontinued for “business reasons.”

“We plan to vigorously oppose what we believe are baseless claims and allegations in this complaint,” they said.

Yu has also alleged in the lawsuit that ByteDance stole intellectual property from its competitors, specifically Instagram and Snapchat, to populate its platform with their videos to make it appear more popular.

“ByteDance is committed to respecting the intellectual property of other companies, and we acquire data in accordance with industry practices and our global policy,” the spokesperson said.

The social media platform TikTok, which ByteDance owns, has faced heavy scrutiny in recent months over its data security practices. 

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in late March, during which he was grilled by members of both parties over topics like the app’s alleged threats to national security, data privacy and risk to minors. 

Lawmakers in general have expressed concerns that TikTok, through ByteDance, could be required to provide U.S. data to the Chinese government through a 2017 national security law that requires Chinese companies to give requested information to Chinese intelligence agencies. 

TikTok and ByteDance leaders have maintained that the company is independent of the Chinese government and not subject to its requests. 

The controversy surrounding TikTok has led lawmakers on the federal and state level to take action to place restrictions on or try to ban the platform. About three dozen states have banned TikTok from their state-owned devices, and the federal government has also banned it on devices used by federal employees. 

Some lawmakers have also called for banning TikTok in the U.S. entirely.

Updated at 8:29 a.m.

Tags ByteDance Chinese Communist Party Shou Zi Chew TikTok user data whistleblower wrongful termination

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