Journalists on TikTok are under a snooping threat after parent company ByteDance admitted employees accessed the data of U.S. users including two reporters. According to the Nieman Journalism Lab, there are close to 400 journalists and publishers around the world who use TikTok.
The ByteDance employees were reportedly involved in an internal probe related to a recent data breach of the company’s data. The IP addresses of the two journalists were scanned to cross-check if their location matched with the suspects of the data leak, Reuters reported.
According to the report, the employees were hoping to draw a connection between the journalists – a former BuzzFeed reporter and Financial Times reporter – and the employees of the company.
Source: The Nieman Journalism Lab, Harvard University
ByteDance employees fired
Four ByteDance employees were fired in the alleged spying incident. Two were based in US and the other were from China.
The employees, who were fired, inappropriately accessed the data of the Financial Times journalist Cristina Criddle to determine her geographical proximity with ByteDance staff.
However, the investigation results proved their suspicion wrong. Cristina Criddle has been known to have uncovered several news related to TikTok. Its employees have been quitting the London office with work hours stretched nearly 12 hours.
ByteDance also spied on Forbes journalists as per the Reuters report. Several journalists’ data was accessed by TikTok employees as part of their covert surveillance campaign to find Forbes’s link with China.
Chris Lepitak, the Chief Internal Auditor who was allegedly leading the spying campaign was fired by ByteDance. Song Ye, who was based in China, resigned from the position of an executive. Song was reporting to Lepitak about the surveillance campaign.
TikTok general counsel Erich Andersen said in an email to Forbes, “It is standard practice for companies to have an internal audit group authorized to investigate code of conduct violations. However, in this case, individuals misused their authority to obtain access to TikTok user data.”
Nearly 80 audio files have been uncovered with recordings of TikTok meetings according to a BuzzFeed News report published in June 2022. The recordings showcased US TikTok user data being traced back to China as part of a covert mission called Project Texas.
The data was collected between September 2021 to January 2022 in the hands of TikTok employees. The recordings were of groups such as company leaders, consultants, policy hand presentations, screenshots of documents, etc.
In 2020, the then president of the United States of America threatened to ban TikTok owing to concerns related to the safety of US TikTok users. The decision is still under review by authorities.
The China Connection
TikTok has always been under the regulatory scanner across the world because of its China connection. Its parent company ByteDance is headquartered in Beijing, although incorporated in the Cayman Islands.
The US is already working to legally prohibit federal employees from using TikTok on work devices, with the perceived aim of endangering the company’s reputation and scaring away advertisers. The move is the latest development in the long-running U.S. national security investigation over concerns that the app could be used by the Chinese government to censor content or spy on Americans.
FBI director Christopher A Wray told U.S. lawmakers in November 2022 that “the Chinese government could use [TikTok] to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations.
The app is currently banned in eight countries.