Ex-ByteDance employee’s lawsuit claims Chinese government accessed U.S. TikTok user data

By 05/15/2023
Ex-ByteDance employee’s lawsuit claims Chinese government accessed U.S. TikTok user data

TikTok‘s effort to stave off a U.S. ban has suffered yet another setback. A former employee of TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, has filed a lawsuit in the California Superior Court for San Francisco County. Among other allegations, the suit claims that representatives from the Chinese Communist Party accessed the user data of U.S. TikTok users.

The ex-ByteDance operative, Yintao “Roger” Yu, worked for the Beijing-based corporation between 2017 and 2018. In his original complaint, filed earlier this month, he claimed that he was fired because he would not comply with his employer’s “efforts to skirt legal and ethical lines.”

Yu’s original lawsuit alleges that TikTok ran a “worldwide scheme” in which employees cribbed videos from Instagram and Snapchat in order to create a library of short-form content. It also claims that ByteDance used TikTok and its Chinese counterpart Douyin to run propaganda campaigns against Japan and Hong Kong. After resisting those sorts of practices, Yu is seeking damages for wrongful termination.


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A new complaint, filed on May 12, adds a damning accusation: Yu claims that the Chinese Communist Party established a unit called The Committee, which monitored ByteDance and ensured its adherence to CCP ideology. “The Committee maintained supreme access to all the company data, even data stored in the United States,” reads a copy of the complaint obtained by CNN.

In a statement provided to The New York Times, ByteDance said it would “vigorously oppose what we believe are baseless claims and allegations in this complaint.” The two parties in the case seem to disagree about the length and nature of Yu’s ByteDance employment.

The original filing claims Yu worked as the Head of Engineering for ByteDance’s U.S. operations between August 2017 and November 2018. In its statement, ByteDance said “Mr. Yu worked for ByteDance Inc. for less than a year and his employment ended in July 2018. During his brief time at the company, he worked on an app called Flipagram, which was discontinued years ago for business reasons.”

ByteDance could also argue that Yu’s claims about CCP access to U.S. TikTok data are outdated, since the company is in the process of moving that data to Oracle-monitored servers as part of an initiative called Project Texas. But Yu believes the physical location of the servers is “irrelevant” because some engineers possess a “backdoor” to the sensitive data.

No matter the outcome of the lawsuit, Yu’s allegations will cause more problems for TikTok, which is looking to avoid a nationwide ban in the U.S. Lawmakers have been looking to crack down on the app due to their concerns about CCP access to U.S. user data.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew has insisted that the data in question is secure, but Yu’s lawsuit undermines that argument  — as do apparent security flaws at TikTok’s Virginia data centers and the departure of TikTok’s U.S. Head of Trust and Safety, Eric Han. The fight to sustain TikTok’s U.S. operations will now continue in Washington and, potentially, in court.

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