Bytedance used its TikTok app to monitor several US journalists and their families. From a Chinese point of view, these are regrettable isolated cases.
The Chinese company Bytedance has misused its video app TikTok to monitor the movements of several US journalists and their relatives who had the app installed on their phones. The Chinese company denied an earlier Forbes report, and now Bytedance boss Liang Rubo speaks of “misconduct by a few individuals”, which will probably be “a lesson for all of us”. There was also an internal codename for monitoring the critical journalists: Project Raven.
According to an internal investigation commissioned by Bytedance, the Forbes journalists Emily Baker-White, Katharine Schwab, and Richard Nieva are affected, the magazine reports. You used to work at Buzzfeed News. In addition, a Financial Times journalist and an unnamed former Buzzfeed employee, and relatives of these people are said to have been monitored.
Several Bytedance/ TikTok employees are said to have repeatedly retrieved the whereabouts data from the app logs. The perpetrators are said to have tried to find out whether those being monitored were in contact with Bytedance employees. One or more employees had passed evidence of dishonest activities at TikTok to Buzzfeed: audio recordings of 80 internal meetings show that the data of US TikTok users was repeatedly accessed from China.
TikTok ban threatened
This misuse of personal data is grist to the mills of those who consider TikTok a risk to US national security and are pushing for the app to be banned. The TikTok app is already banned or blocked on official cell phones in 19 US states. TikTok is currently the most visited online service in the world. More than two years ago, China’s neighbor India blocked over 200 Chinese apps, including TikTok, Alipay, and WeChat.
Now US Senator Mark Warner, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, is threatening a TikTok ban in the US: “This new development reinforces serious concerns that the social network (employees) in the People’s Republic of China has allowed repeated access to private data from the US “The Justice Department has promised for more than a year that they are looking at ways to protect US users from Bytedance and the Chinese Communist Party. It is time to come up with a solution or Parliament will soon be forced to intervene.”
No details on consequences
Bytedance apparently blames those employees who are supposed to monitor compliance with regulations for illegal monitoring. Chris Lepitak, head of internal audit, was fired, as well as one other employee in the US and the People’s Republic of China. Lepitak’s Chinese boss Song Ye, who reports directly to CEO Rubo Liang, has resigned himself, according to Forbes.
Project Raven is said to have been approved by China; Ironically, the data protection officer TikToks, who is also the head of security, is said to have participated. In addition, the head of global legal compliance is said to have been inaugurated. TikTok spokeswoman Hilary McQuaide has assured Forbes that none of the perpetrators work for the company anymore. The company does not disclose any further details on the consequences for (ex-)employees.