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TikTok owner admits employees tracked journalists’ locations

The popular social media app TikTok. (Dreamstime/TNS)
December 22, 2022

China-based TikTok owner ByteDance has admitted to analyzing personal data of several users of the app, including two journalists, as part of an investigation into leaks.

Two employees working in China and two in the U.S. have been fired as a result, the New York Times reported

The revelation comes as the app is increasingly banned on government devices and follows years of U.S. officials warning the Chinese Communist Party could leverage its tight grip on corporations to influence and spy on Americans through the app. 

The two targeted reporters worked for BuzzFeed News and the Financial Times. ByteDance employees improperly accessed their personal data, and that of several people connected to them, to determine whether they had been in proximity to potential leakers working for the company. 

The investigation didn’t find any leaks, according to an email sent to ByteDance employees Thursday, the Times reported. 

In the email, ByteDance general counsel Erich Andersen condemned the fired employees, the Financial Times reported. He wrote that a “misguided plan was developed and carried out by a few individuals within the Internal Audit department this past summer,” adding they had “misused their authority.”

In another email, ByteDance CEO Liang Rubo said the company needs to “deeply reflect on our actions and think about how we can prevent similar incidents from happening again.”

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew emailed employees to say the company takes “data security incredibly seriously,” highlighting efforts to store data in the U.S. as a “testament to that commitment.”

The company has said all American data is being routed through U.S.-based servers owned by tech giant Oracle, as reported by the New York Times. It had said historical data – which is what now-fired employees accessed over the summer – would eventually be deleted from Chinese servers.

Company officials have denied and dodged questions about whether private American data can be accessed in China amid reports, including from BuzzFeed News, indicating that it can and sometimes is.

In a statement, BuzzFeed said it was “deeply disturbed” by the news and intends “to review our legal options moving forward,” the New York Times reported.

This was a breaking news story. The details were periodically updated as more information became available.