Hong Kong (CNN) The Chinese Communist Party had “unlimited access” to all data held by TikTok’s parent company Bytedance, including on servers in the United States, a former employer who filed a wrongful termination suit alleged.
The allegations in the lawsuit — which Bytedance denies and have vowed to contest — come at a time of intense scrutiny within the United States and other Western countries over the level of control, if any, that Beijing is able to exert over TikTok and the social networks. The very popular content of the media app.
Yintao “Roger” Yu filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Bytedance in San Francisco Superior Court earlier this month. He says he worked for the company from August 2017 to November 2018, as Chief Engineering Officer for US operations.
In a new complaint filed Friday, Yu alleged that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a special office at the company, sometimes referred to as a “committee,” that monitored Bytedance and “directed how it advanced core communist values.”
“The commission maintained access to all company data, even data stored in the United States,” reads the complaint, obtained by CNN.
Yu’s lawsuit alleges that the company made user data available to the Chinese Communist Party via a back-channel, regardless of where the data was located.
Yu also claimed to have noticed that Bytedance “responds to CCP requests” to share, upload, or even remove content, calling Bytedance a “useful propaganda tool” for Beijing’s leaders.
A Bytedance spokesperson denied Yu’s allegations, saying he worked on an app called Flipagram while at the company, which was discontinued for business reasons.
“We plan to vigorously contest what we believe to be unsubstantiated allegations and allegations in this complaint,” the spokesperson told CNN.
“Mr. Yu worked for ByteDance Inc. for less than a year and ended his employment in July 2018,” which Yu disputes in his complaint.
User content issues
Earlier reports of Yu’s lawsuit detailed how he realized shortly after starting his business that Bytedance had engaged for years in what he called a “global scheme” to steal and profit from other people’s content.
The scheme involved using software unleashed on purpose to “systematically” strip user content from competitors’ sites, notably Instagram and Snapchat, and publish their own video services without asking for permission.
The former employee claimed he was “disturbed by ByteDance’s efforts to skirt legal and ethical lines.”
Yu is seeking damages such as lost profit, injunctive damages, liquidated and punitive damages.
In a statement to CNN, a ByteDance spokesperson said the company is “committed to respecting the intellectual property of other companies, and we obtain data in accordance with industry practices and our global policy.”
The latest allegations come as the hugely popular app TikTok is at risk of being banned by US lawmakers over national security concerns.
The Biden administration has threatened TikTok with a nationwide ban unless its Chinese owners sell their stakes in the company, illustrating an increasingly strained relationship between the two countries. Last month, Montana became the first US state to pass legislation banning TikTok on all personal devices.
The dispute revolves around who owns the keys to TikTok’s algorithms and the vast troves of data collected from the 150 million people in the US who use the app each month.
US officials have widely expressed concerns that the Chinese government may gain access to TikTok user data through its links to its parent company, and that this information could be used for Chinese intelligence or propaganda campaigns.
However, security experts say there is still no public evidence that the Chinese government has actually spied on people through TikTok, which does not operate in China.
In March, TikTok CEO Xu Qiu testified before Congress, saying he “didn’t see any evidence that the Chinese government had access to that.” [US user] data; They never asked us, and we didn’t provide it.”
“Our obligation is to have their data transferred to the United States, to be stored on US soil by a US company, overseen by US personnel. So the risk would be similar to any government going to a US company asking for the data,” Chiu said at the hearing.
China has responded to the Biden administration’s demand, saying it will “resolutely” oppose the compulsory sale of TikTok.
The Chinese government considers some advanced technologies, including content recommendation algorithms, to be essential to its national interest. In December, Chinese officials proposed tightening rules governing the sale of that technology to foreign buyers.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Commerce said in March that the sale or divestiture of TikTok would involve exporting the technology, so you would need to obtain a license and approval from the Chinese government.
CNN’s Brian Fong contributed to this report.
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