TikTok whistleblower says Chinese Communist Party has backdoor access to American user data

Credit: Solen Feyissa

A former ByteDance exec who was fired from the company has filed a lawsuit alleging the company had backdoor access to US user data in China.

The lawsuit alleges that ByteDance stole content from competitors such as Instagram and Snapchat and served as a propaganda tool for the Chinese government by suppressing or promoting content beneficial to the country’s interests. These allegations have been debated in the US for months, with FBI Director Christopher Wray calling on Congress to take action against the app.

The latest allegations surfaced in a complaint filed by Yintao Yu, the technical director of ByteDance’s US operations from August 2017 to November 2018. They are part of a wrongful termination lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court earlier this month. Yu says he was fired from his job for disclosing wrongful behavior he observed while employed at the company.

The complaint said the Chinese government monitored ByteDance’s work from its headquarters in Beijing. It also said that the CCP offered ByteDance guidelines to promote “core communist values.” The lawsuit also alleges that CCP government officials had the ability to shut down the Chinese versions of ByteDance — while maintaining access to all company data, including data stored in the United States.

TikTok says it has never shared US user data with the Chinese government and would not if asked to do so. However, there is hardly any need to “give out” data if a technical backdoor for accessing this data is built into the system. Further in the lawsuit, Yu alleges that the CCP used the app to foment anti-Japanese sentiment on the Chinese version of TikTok called Douyin.

Yu also alleges that ByteDance developed software that removes user content from other websites like Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube — without the original creator’s permission. The company then re-released the content on its own websites, including TikTok, to generate more engagement from users in the app’s early days.