China, US ByteDance Staff Accessed Journalists’ TikTok Data

  • TikTok-owner ByteDance said workers accessed user data from US journalists and other private citizens, NYT reports.
  • ByteDance said the data collection was part of an unsuccessful attempt to track down leaks, per the report.
  • The revelation contradicts an earlier statement from TikTok that said the app had never been used to “target” journalists.

TikTok’s parent company ByteDance informed employees that some of its staff improperly accessed TikTok user data on some US citizens, including two journalists, The New York Times reported Thursday.

The China-based parent company, which is facing scrutiny from US lawmakers over privacy concerns, told employees in an email seen by The New York Times that an investigation found that the data was collected as part of an attempt to track internal leaks to the press.

The memo said that two US-based employees and two based in China were fired for taking part in the endeavor, which was unsuccessful in uncovering any leakers, according to The New York Times. 

Data, such as IP addresses and other sensitive information, were reportedly gathered from the TikTok accounts of 2 reporters: Emily Baker-White from Buzzfeed and Cristina Criddle from Financial Times, according to journalists from both publications. Other US citizens connected to the two reporters were also targeted, according to the Times.

ByteDance reportedly said it had restricted its audit and risk teams, now removing access to US data from that department moving forward. 

“The public trust that we have spent huge efforts building is going to be significantly undermined by the misconduct of a few individuals,” ByteDance CEO Liang Rubo reportedly wrote to employees in an email. 

TikTok’s parent company ByteDance did not immediately respond to comment from Insider. 

The revelation comes as TikTok faces increasing pressure from lawmakers worried it could be used as a tool by the Chinese government to spy on or influence US citizens. 

Last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill that would ban “all transactions from any social media company in, or under the influence of, China, Russia, and several other foreign countries of concern.”

The Senate also recently voted to ban TikTok from all government devices. In a statement to Insider, TikTok called the bill “a proposal which does nothing to advance U.S. national security interests.”

TikTok has consistently denied reports that it tracks Americans using its application.

In response to a Forbes report from October that ByteDance planned to use the TikTok app to track the location of specific US citizens, TikTok tweeted, in part, “TikTok has never been used to ‘target’ any members of the U.S. government, activists, public figures or journalists, nor do we serve them a different content experience than other users.”

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