China Repeatedly Accessed U.S. TikTok User Data, Leaked Audio

Written by Mike Boutwell

August 8, 2022

TikTok has, for a number of years, provided a response to concerns regarding data privacy by assuring consumers that any information obtained about users in the United States is held in the United States and not in China, which is the location of ByteDance, the parent company of the video platform. However, according to audio that was improperly leaked from more than 80 internal TikTok meetings, employees of ByteDance based in China have repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about U.S. TikTok users.

At the absolute least, the recordings contain 14 remarks from nine different TikTok workers indicating that engineers in China had access to U.S. data between the months of September 2021 and January 2022. These statements are contained inside the recordings. Despite the fact that a TikTok executive testified under oath in a Senate hearing in October 2021, stating that a “world-renowned, US-based security team” decides who gets access to this data. These statements were made in response to allegations that TikTok failed to adequately protect the privacy of its users. According to the tapes, U.S. workers did not have permission or knowledge of how to access the data on their own. Nor did they know how to access the data.

The recordings include everything from small-group meetings with company leaders and consultants to policy all-hands presentations. They are supported by screenshots and other documents, providing vast evidence to corroborate prior reports of China-based employees accessing user data in the United States. The parent company is located in Beijing. In the end, the tapes provide evidence that the corporation may have misled lawmakers, its users, and the general public by playing down the possibility that data held in the United States might still be accessible by staff located in China.

TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan issued the following brief statement in response to an extensive list of examples and questions regarding data access: “We are aware that we are one of the platforms that are subjected to the most scrutiny in terms of security, and it is our goal to dispel any uncertainty regarding the safety of the data of U.S. users. Because of this, we make it a point to hire professionals who are well-versed in their respective industries, we make it a point to constantly work on validating our security standards, and we bring in credible, independent third parties to evaluate our defenses.” ByteDance would not make an additional comment.

In 2019, CFI in the United States started looking into the potential consequences that TikTok’s gathering of American data could have on the country’s national security. And in the year 2020, the then-president of the United States, Donald Trump, issued a threat to completely ban the app due to concerns that the Chinese government could utilize ByteDance to compile personal information dossiers on TikTok users in the United States. Trump said in his executive order that “data collecting threatens to provide the Chinese Communist Party access to the personal and proprietary information of Americans.” TikTok is a video-sharing app. TikTok has stated that it has never provided user data to the Chinese government and that it will refuse to do so if the request is made.

Most of the recorded discussions centered on TikTok’s response to the concerns raised. Within the corporation, this initiative is referred to as “Project Texas,” and it is being carried out with the intention of rerouting the company’s pipes so that some “protected” data will no longer be able to flow from the United States into China. According to the recordings, the overwhelming majority of instances in which personnel stationed in China accessed data pertaining to U.S. users were done so in aid of Project Texas’s goal to prohibit this data access.

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