Color Me Shocked? Ex-TikTok Employees Blow Whistle on Chinese Access to App

April 16th, 2024 4:36 PM

A group of former TikTok employees is sounding the alarm on the company’s disturbing ties to the communist Chinese government.

Fortune interviewed 11 former employees, some of whom stated that TikTok does have close operational ties with its Chinese parent company, ByteDance. Furthermore, the employees admitted that ByteDance’s “independence from China was largely cosmetic” and the China-based company received vast amounts of data. These revelations highlight the national security risks creating a firestorm of controversy around the popular TikTok app.

“The allegations … create more fodder for critics who fear the Chinese government could use TikTok as a sort of Trojan Horse to spy on Americans by sifting through the huge amounts of digital data that it collects,” Fortune explained. The House of Representatives recently voted to advance legislation that would force ByteDance to sell TikTok if the latter is to operate in the United States. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) owns a board seat and maintains a financial stake in TikTok’s parent ByteDance.

Former TikTok senior data scientist Evan Turner told Fortune that he always answered to a Chinese ByteDance executive despite an alleged alteration in his chain of command. Turner was also required to email detailed data about twice a month on “hundreds of thousands of U.S. users to ByteDance workers in Beijing.” As he told Fortune, “I literally worked on a project that gave U.S. data to China.”

Anton Dahbura, executive director of Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute, told Fortune the data — including IP addresses, names and geographic location — could be “very damaging” in the wrong hands. 

Patrick Spaulding Ryan, TikTok’s lead technical program manager for security engineering until 2022, added another piece of concerning information. Ryan said that some of TikTok’s internal software was monitored and maintained by China-based ByteDance teams. Fortune added that it was impossible to assure prospective customers that U.S. data for the shared internal messaging system Lark was safe and secure.

While TikTok executives are attempting to convince American users and politicians that the app is independent of China and not subject to CCP spying and data mining, the new information raises questions. Multiple former employees even admitted to being pressured by the company to downplay TikTok-ByteDance ties, either to the public or to fellow employees. But if what these employees say is true, TikTok truly is a national security risk.

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