A former executive of ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, has raised allegations that the company provided backdoor access to data on US users and promoted, downgraded and removed certain content under the direction of the Chinese government.
A wrongful termination lawsuit filed by Yintao Yu, who was chief of engineering for the company’s U.S. offices five years ago, alleges that the Chinese government had a special unit within ByteDance, dubbed the “Committee,” that “guided how it company brought forward the communist core values”. said an amended complaint filed Friday in the San Francisco Superior Court. He says ByteDance served as a “useful propaganda tool,” pointing to instances where the company “responded to the Chinese Communist Party’s requests to share information and even elevate or remove content.”
The lawsuit detailing how ByteDance operated when he worked for the company from August 2017 to November 2018 was filed as the government considers a nationwide TikTok ban. Lawmakers claim the social media app, which has about 150 million US monthly users, poses a national security risk because it is subject to Chinese government influence, though they have yet to provide evidence on the matter. The app has been banned on government devices and more than 30 states have taken similar action. In April, Montana passed a bill requiring app stores to stop offering the app after TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew mostly failed to address national security concerns during a congressional committee hearing on ByteDance’s ties to China and its data practices.
TikTok did not immediately respond to requests for comment, including whether the alleged group controlled by the Chinese government still exists.
The complaint bolsters allegations from lawmakers that the Chinese government accessed data on U.S. users via TikTok via ByteDance. “Mr. Yu saw the backdoor channel in the code, allowing certain high-level access to user data no matter where the data resides, even if it is hosted by a US company with servers in the US,” the filing reads .
When grilled by a congressional committee, Chew repeatedly highlighted a partnership with Oracle to move its user data stored on foreign servers to Texas, essentially a firewall for the data the Chinese government could collect. The initiative, called Project Texas, includes audits of its algorithms and the creation of a subsidiary called TikTok US Data Security to oversee content moderation policies and approve editorial decisions.
Yu says he was “struck by the CEO’s deception”, explaining that the location of the servers does not protect US data. “What matters is whether the back door is closed,” writes his lawyer Charles Jung in the indictment.
In response to ByteDance moving Beijing-based engineers to locations outside the country, such as Singapore, Yu says there was “no substantial change” in whether they could access data on US users.
The suit also describes a “culture of lawlessness within the company” aimed at promoting “growth at all costs”. He accuses ByteDance of scraping user content from its competitors by using software to remove content from the likes of Instagram and Snapchat and copy it to TikTok.
The effort extended to using bots to artificially inflate user engagement metrics, the complaint said. “The program served ByteDance’s commercial interests while at the same time serving to provide the CCP, through its back door and influence with ByteDance, with a larger and more engaged audience for propaganda,” Jung writes.
When he raised concerns about the legality of the practices in October 2017, Yu said company executives were dismissive. He was fired in July 2018 “allegedly due to a reduction in strength,” the lawsuit alleges. ByteDance never acquired any of its shares in the company, which are said to be worth millions of dollars.
The complaint alleges violations of California’s unfair competition law, which prohibits, among other things, fraudulent business practices, retaliation, breach of contract and wrongful termination. It seeks past and future lost revenue, damages, and a court order prohibiting ByteDance from continuing with content scraping practices. Yu sued after mediation with the company failed.