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TikTok’s Chinese masters wanted app to spy on specific Americans: Report

TikTok, owned by China-based ByteDance. (Dreamstime/TNS)
October 21, 2022

ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of the popular TikTok app, wanted to use their app to track the locations of specific Americans, according to internal documents reportedly leaked to Forbes.

According to a report Forbes published on Thursday, leaked internal documents show that ByteDance Internal Audit and Risk Control department planned use location information collected by the TikTok app to monitor at least two specific U.S. citizens. It is unclear if the internal audit team ever went through with the location data collection plan.

TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan has said the app collects approximate location information based on users IP addresses. Shanahan said this is done to “help show relevant content and ads to users, comply with applicable laws, and detect and prevent fraud and inauthentic behavior.” According to the documents obtained by Forbes, however, ByteDance’s internal audit team would have used this location tracking method to surveil Americans.

The Internal Audit team — which is led by China-based executive Song Ye and which answers directly to CEO Rubo Liang — is supposed to track misconduct by current and former employees. According to the documents Forbes received, this audit team planned to track specific Americans who had never even worked for the company.

TikTok publicly denied the Forbes reporting in a series of tweets, “@Forbes’ reporting about TikTok continues to lack both rigor and journalistic integrity.”

“Specifically, Forbes chose not to include the portion of our statement that disproved the feasibility of its core allegation: TikTok does not collect precise GPS location information from US users, meaning TikTok could not monitor US users in the way the article suggested.”

“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,” the company continued. “Our Internal Audit team follows set policies and processes to acquire information they need to conduct internal investigations of violations of the company codes of conduct, as is standard in companies across our industry.”

TikTok also said “any use of internal audit resources as alleged by Forbes would be grounds for immediate dismissal of company personnel.”

The Forbes report comes as Tiktok has seen increased scrutiny over its practices and the popular video-sharing app’s ownership by a Chinese firm.

Past reports have alleged China-based ByteDance employees have been able to access U.S. user data. TikTok has acknowledged China-based employees have been able to access U.S. data, but has said this process is “subject to a series of robust cybersecurity controls and authorization approval protocols overseen by our U.S.-based security team.”

According to Forbes’ latest reporting, the ByteDance audit team manages data requests through an internal system known as the “green channel.” Forbes said information it has reviewed shows the “green channel” has been used to route information about specific U.S.-based employees to China.

The accessibility of U.S. user data by Chinese company employees raises concerns that the data could also be used to help the Chinese government. At a U.S. Senate hearing last month, TikTok’s chief operating officer Vanessa Pappas avoided answering as to whether or not members of China’s ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), have been able to access U.S. user data.

U.S. officials have expressed concerns about TikTok for years. In 2019, the Pentagon advised military service members and civilian employees to be careful about using the app, and U.S. military branches went a step further by banning the app in some instances. In 2020, President Donald Trump sought to ban the app in the U.S. or force ByteDance to hand over its U.S.-based operations to a U.S. firm. Last year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order, ending the Trump-era effort to ban the app in the U.S.