Former ByteDance exec reveals CCP had ‘superuser’ access to American data

Photo credit: Gabriel Heinzer

A former ByteDance executive has filed a lawsuit claiming that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members had “superuser” permission to access American data on TikTok. Here’s the latest.

Yintao Yu served as Head of Engineering for ByteDance in the United States in 2018. He filed the allegations in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit in May 2023 in San Francisco Superior Court. These documents show that ByteDance is a “superuser‘ Permission that allows a “special committee of company-based CCP members to view all data collected by ByteDance, including that from US users.”

These superuser credentials acted as a “backdoor to any barrier ByteDance allegedly installed to protect data from CCP surveillance,” according to the filing. Yu says he has seen the CCP use their superuser access to track Hong Kong protesters and civil rights activists by monitoring their locations and devices, SIM card identification, IP addresses, network information and communications on the platform.

Yu’s attorney, Charles Jung, told Business Insider that he decided to make the allegations after hearing TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s recent testimony before Congress. In this statement, Chew denies that Chinese authorities could access large amounts of American data.

TikTok is still under intensive US scrutiny with regard to its data handling. But both the US military and the government believe the app poses a national security risk. They have banned the app on government devices — and FBI Christopher Wray has issued warnings regarding the CCP accessing data and manipulating TikTok algorithms.

In the US alone, TikTok has over 150 million monthly active users. Globally, that number is skyrocketing to over a billion. What does superuser access mean and why is it a concern? A superuser is the same as an administrator. This means that the account can access any part of the network – regardless of the security measures set up for the sandbox of other accounts. Superuser access means the posturing of TikToks “Project Texas‘ was just an illusion of safety designed to distract like smoke and mirrors by a magic trick.