In a claim made against ByteDance, the parent company of popular video-sharing platform TikTok, a former executive has reportedly alleged that members of China’s Communist Party (CCP) accessed the data of TikTok users in Hong Kong back in 2018.
The claims were reported by The Wall Street Journal on Monday (June 5), citing a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit filed in early May by Yintao Yu, who previously served as the head of engineering for ByteDance’s US offices from August 2017 to November 2018.
Yu, a resident of California, reportedly worked at ByteDance’s Menlo Park office, as well as in Los Angeles and Beijing.
He claimed in the filing with the San Francisco Superior Court that a committee of the CCP specifically targeted civil rights activists and protesters in Hong Kong during that time and obtained sensitive user data from TikTok, including network information, SIM card identifications, IP addresses, and even user communications on the platform.
ByteDance, however, denies these allegations.
A spokeswoman for the company strongly refuted the claims, telling the WSJ: “We vigorously oppose what we believe are baseless claims and allegations in this complaint.”
She further pointed out that Yu was involved with an app called Flipagram, which was discontinued several years ago for business reasons.
“We vigorously oppose what we believe are baseless claims and allegations in this complaint…his actions are clearly intended to garner media attention.”
ByteDance spokeswoman, speaking to the WSJ
The spokeswoman added that Yu’s termination occurred in 2018, and he had not raised these allegations in the five years since, suggesting that “his actions are clearly intended to garner media attention.”
Charles Jung, Yu’s lawyer and a partner at the law firm Nassiri & Jung, explained that his client decided to come forward now due to what he perceived as misdirection in testimony provided by TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew during a congressional hearing in March.
“My client is placing himself at risk by telling his story in court. But the truth is powerful, and telling the truth is what’s needed to bring social change,” Jung was quoted by the newspaper as saying.
“My client is placing himself at risk by telling his story in court. But the truth is powerful, and telling the truth is what’s needed to bring social change.”
Charles Jung, Yintao Yu’s Lawyer
These allegations emerge at a critical time for TikTok as the company attempts to lobby the US government to keep the app operating in the US.
Montana last month became the first US state to ban TikTok after a bill to restrict downloads of the app was signed by Governor Greg Gianforte. In response, five TiKTok users in the state filed a lawsuit, seeking to reverse the ban before it takes effect on Jan. 1, 2024.
Lawmakers in Montana are among a number of US politicians that have raised concerns about the potential for the Chinese government to access user data through TikTok or manipulate content on the platform.
To alleviate these concerns, TikTok has rolled out a number of initiatives including launching ‘Project Texas,’ designed to segregate US users’ data onto servers run by Oracle in Texas.
The company also created a new subsidiary to handle its US data, claiming that this measure will prevent Chinese law from impacting TikTok’s American user data.
Yu’s accusations against ByteDance in Hong Kong follow the company’s decision in 2020 to withdraw TikTok from Hong Kong, citing concerns over complying with the ‘national security law’ that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong, giving it expanded authority in the former British colony.
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