ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, is facing serious allegations of facilitating the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in accessing the data of Hong Kong activists and protesters advocating for civil rights.
According to a recent court filing by former ByteDance executive Yintao Yu, individuals who uploaded content related to protests were singled out and monitored. At the same time, CCP members were granted access to user data, including that of American TikTok users.
In the court document, Yu claimed that members of a CCP committee had a “superuser” credential, also known as the “god user,” which allowed them unrestricted access to all the data collected by ByteDance. Although not official ByteDance employees, these committee members were physically present at the company’s offices in Beijing, which was allegedly common knowledge among senior executives.
The filing further alleged that in 2018, CCP committee members utilized their “god credential” to identify and locate Hong Kong protesters, civil rights activists, and supporters of the demonstrations.
It is important to note that Hong Kong witnessed significant protests 2014 during the Umbrella Movement, where people demanded the right to elect their own leader. Following that, smaller demonstrations by civil rights activists took place. However, visible dissent has significantly diminished since Beijing imposed a stringent national security law in response to the anti-government protests 2019.
In response to these allegations, a ByteDance spokesperson vehemently denied the claims, labeling them baseless. The spokesperson emphasized that Mr. Yu was employed by the company for less than a year and worked on a now-discontinued app called Flipagram, questioning why he had not raised these allegations in the five years since his employment termination in July 2018. The spokesperson suggested that Mr. Yu’s actions seemed intended to attract media attention.
These accusations come when TikTok is already under intense global scrutiny. In March, TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, faced an extensive four-and-a-half-hour congressional hearing in the United States, where both Democrats and Republicans questioned him regarding the app’s data security, privacy practices and alleged connections to Beijing.
In May, Montana became the first U.S. state to pass a comprehensive ban on TikTok, which is set to take effect in January 2024. The ban prohibits app stores from offering TikTok but does not prevent individuals who already have the app from using it. TikTok has sued to block Montana from enforcing the ban, citing conflicts with U.S. free speech rights. It is worth noting that TikTok currently boasts 150 million American users, with its user base primarily consisting of teenagers and individuals in their 20s.