Ex-ByteDance Executive Claims Company Shared Data on U.S. Users With Chinese Government

A former executive at ByteDance, the Chinese firm that owns TikTok, has come forward with accusations that the company provided backdoor access to data on U.S. users and boosted, demoted and removed certain content at the direction of the Chinese government.

A wrongful termination suit filed by Yintao Yu, who was head of engineering for the company’s U.S. offices five years ago, alleges that Chinese government maintained a special unit within ByteDance referred to as the “Committee” that “guided how the company advanced core Communist values,” according to an amended complaint filed on Friday in San Francisco Superior Court. He says that ByteDance served as a “useful propaganda tool,” pointing to instances when the company was “responsive to the Chinese Communist Party’s requests to share information, and even to elevate or remove content.”

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The suit detailing how ByteDance operated when he worked for the company from August 2017 to November 2018 was filed as the government weighs a national TikTok ban. Lawmakers claim that the social media app, which has roughly 150 million American monthly users, poses a national security risk because it’s subject to influence from the Chinese government, though they have yet to offer any evidence on the issue. The app has been banned on government devices, and more than 30 states have passed similar measures. In April, Montana passed a bill requiring app stores to stop carrying the app after TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew mostly failed to alleviate national security concerns in a congressional committee hearing over ByteDance’s ties to China and its data practices.

TikTok didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment, including on whether the alleged group controlled by the Chinese government is still in place.

The complaint reinforces accusations from lawmakers that the Chinese government had access to data on American users through ByteDance via TikTok. “Mr. Yu saw the backdoor channel in the code, which allows certain high level persons to access user data, no matter where the data is located, even if hosted by a U.S. company with servers located in the U.S.,” reads the filing.

When he was being grilled by a congressional committee, Chew repeatedly emphasized a partnership with Oracle to move its data on users stored on foreign servers to Texas, essentially firewalling the data the Chinese government could collect. The initiative, called Project Texas, includes audits of its algorithms and creating a subsidiary called TikTok U.S. Data Security to oversee content moderation policies and approve editorial decisions.

Yu says he was “struck by the misdirection by the CEO,” explaining that the location of the servers doesn’t protect U.S. data. “What matters is whether the backdoor has been closed,” writes his attorney Charles Jung in the complaint.

Responding to ByteDance moving Beijing-based engineers to locations outside the country, such as Singapore, Yu says that there was “no substantive change” to whether they had access to data on American users.

The suit also details a “culture of lawlessness within the company” aimed at fostering “growth at all costs.” He accuses ByteDance of scraping user content from its competitors by using software to strip content from Instagram and Snapchat, among others, and copy them onto TikTok.

The effort extended to using bots to artificially inflate user engagement metrics, according to the complaint. “The program served ByteDance’s commercial interests, while at the same time serving to provide the CCP, through its backdoor and influence at ByteDance, with a larger and more engaged audience for propaganda,” Jung writes.

When he raised concerns about the legality of the practices in October 2017, Yu says executives at the company were dismissive. He was terminated in July 2018 “purportedly due to a reduction in force,” the suit claims. ByteDance never vested any of his shares in the company, which would be worth millions of dollars.

The complaint alleges violations of California’s unfair competition law, which prohibits fraudulent business practices, retaliation, breach of contract, and wrongful termination, among other claims. It seeks lost past and future earnings, punitive damages and an injunction barring ByteDance from continuing to engage in practices of scraping content. Yu sued after mediation with the company failed.

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