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An internal investigation at the Chinese-based ByteDance uncovered that several employees accessed the data of U.S. journalists through TikTok, its prominent social media subsidiary.
TikTok employees obtained the reporters’ IP addresses to learn if the journalists had been near company employees who purportedly leaked information to the press.
ByteDance CEO Rubo Liang claims only a group of rouge employees carried out the spy campaign, unbeknownst to the corporate leaders.
“[This was the] misconduct of a few individuals,” said in an email to staffers.
According to The New York Times, ByteDance fired the four employees accused of spying. Two of the staffers were based in China while the other two were in the U.S.
“Following the investigation, ByteDance reportedly restructured its internal audit team and removed the department’s access to U.S. data but executives fear the damage is already done,” The Times reports.
Forbes says the spied on journalist worked at its outlet:
“According to materials reviewed by Forbes, ByteDance tracked multiple Forbes journalists as part of this covert surveillance campaign, which was designed to unearth the source of leaks inside the company following a drumbeat of stories exposing the company’s ongoing links to China. As a result of the investigation into the surveillance tactics, ByteDance fired Chris Lepitak, its chief internal auditor who led the team responsible for them. The China-based executive Song Ye, who Lepitak reported to and who reports directly to ByteDance CEO Rubo Liang, resigned.”Forbes
Forbes reveals the journalists to be Emily Baker-White, Katharine Schwab, and Richard Nieva — all of whom formerly worked at BuzzFeed News.
The investigation, internally known as Project Raven, began this summer after BuzzFeed News published a story revealing that China-based ByteDance employees had repeatedly accessed U.S. user data, based on more than 80 hours of audio recordings of internal TikTok meetings. According to internal ByteDance documents reviewed by Forbes, Project Raven involved the company’s Chief Security and Privacy Office, was known to TikTok’s Head of Global Legal Compliance, and was approved by ByteDance employees in China.Forbes
BuzzFeed News is of particular interest. In June, the outlet debunked a long-standing assertion from ByteDance that the Beijing-based company did not store U.S. user data.
The outlet reviewed over 80 internal TikTok meetings to establish that China had access to U.S. data from at least September 2021 through January 2022.
The documents found that Beijing accessed nonpublic U.S. user information, including phone numbers and birthdays — information to which U.S.-based employees did not have access.
“Everything is seen in China,” a member of the TikTok Trust and Safety department said.
Such a lie warrants ample skepticism to the claim that ByteDance executives were innocent in the spying campaign.
The revelation comes as lawmakers move to restrict the app in the United States. Notably, Congress released a spending bill on Tuesday that would ban TikTok from U.S. government phones.
Pressure to restrict TikTok increased in November when FCC commissioner Brendan Carr called for the Council on Foreign Investment in the U.S. to ban the app entirely.
Carr accurately marked the Chinese-run social media service as a “growing national security concern.”
“There simply isn’t a world in which you could come up with sufficient protection on the data that you could have sufficient confidence that it’s not finding its way back into the hands of the [Chinese Communist Party],” he told Axios.
An astute concern.
Ultimately, TikTok is a threat to both national security and everyday users. We documented TikTok’s rather abusive algorithm in a column last year:
The short-form video service has created an algorithm that far exceeds the manipulation of Facebook and Google.
“On average, TikTok learns a user’s interests in under two hours. At that point, the algorithm feeds on the users’ weaknesses to keep them scrolling on the app. To be specific, TikTok looks to capitalize on users going through breakups and periods of depression.
TikTok bombards users with content that it knows they likely won’t be able to ignore. And like all satanic blueprints, TikTok especially feeds on the weak: 25% of TikTok’s active users in the U.S. are people aged 10-19.”
TikTok became the most visited website in the world in 2021 — putting an exhaustive number of U.S. users, journalists, and government officials at substantial risk.