Hong Kong: former boss of TikTok-owner ByteDance says China’s Communist Party tracked protesters via app data
Yintao Yu said that the ruling party in China used ByteDance data to track protesters in Hong Kong, amid fears that TikTok could be used to track user data
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Yintao Yu, the ex-head of engineering at ByteDance in the US, made the allegations in a filing for a wrongful dismissal case. He also said that the Chinese government had the same access to the data of its US-based users.
There have been widespread, sometimes violent protests in Hong Kong a number of times in the past decade, with some of the most prominent demonstration kicking off in 2019. The semi-autonomous region was set to introduce a new law which would strengthen China’s ability to arrest political protesters and extradite them to mainland China, before it was rescinded in October 2019.
Mr Yu has now alleges that a special committee made up of members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) stationed at the company had access to a so-called ‘god credential’, which they used to track Hong Kong protesters. Data from US users was also stored on the credentia, he claimed.
The filing said that the credential was used as a “backdoor to any barrier ByteDance had supposedly installed to protect data from the CCP’s surveillance”.
In an earlier filing, Mr Yu also made reference to his concerns over “wrongful conduct” he witnessed by employees at the company, and claims he was fired for raising these concerns. He accused the company of using the ByteDance app as a “propaganda tool” for the CCP, while also willingly sharing information at the request of authorities.
His allegations come as scrutiny over TikTok intensifies in the US and how it handles the data of its users, including the access Chinese government officials have to it. TikTok is an app targeted toward a worldwide market, compared to its domestic counterpart Douyin, both of which are owned by ByteDance.
TikTok has been banned on the professional devices of US federal agents, and an umbrella ban on the use of the app in the state of Montana has been issued in response to the data concerns. Charles Jung, Mr Yu’s lawyer, said that his client had decided to raise the allegations after he was “disturbed to hear the recent Congressional testimony of TikTok’s CEO”.
Shou Zi Chow, CEO of the vastly-popular video sharing app, told US lawmakers in the hearing that Chinese authorities did not have access to US user data. Mr Jung said: “Telling the truth openly in court is risky, but social change requires the courage to tell the truth.
“It’s important to him that public policy be based on accurate information, so he’s determined to tell his story.”
ByteDance has denied Mr Yu’s claims. A spokesperson for the company said: “It’s curious that Mr Yu has never raised these allegations in the five years since his employment for Flipagram was terminated in July 2018.
They added: “His actions are clearly intended to garner media attention. We plan to vigorously oppose what we believe are baseless claims and allegations in this complaint.”