TikTok has admitted it used its own app to spy on journalists as part of an effort to track down the journalists’ sources, according to an internal email.
Data was accessed by employees of ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, and was used to track the journalists’ physical movements. The company’s internal auditor Chris Lepitak, who led the team involved in the operation, has been fired, while his China-based manager Song Ye has resigned.
They looked at IP addresses of journalists using the TikTok app in an attempt to find out if they were in the same location as employees suspected of leaking confidential information. The effort, which targeted former BuzzFeed reporter Emily Baker-White and Financial Times reporter Cristina Criddle, among others, was unsuccessful but resulted in at least four employees based in both the US and China improperly accessing the data, according to an e -mail. from ByteDance lawyer Erich Andersen. All four have been fired. Company officials said they were taking additional steps to protect user data.
ByteDance CEO Rubo Liang, the direct manager of Song Ye, said he was “deeply disappointed” in an internal email published by Forbes, where Baker-White now works. “The public trust that we have spent great efforts to build will be significantly undermined by the misconduct of a few individuals … I believe that this situation will serve as a lesson to us all.”
ByteDance and TikTok had initially issued categorical denials of the allegations when they were first reported. The company claimed it “could not monitor US users in the way the article suggested”, adding that TikTok had never been used to “target” any “members of the US government, activists, public figures or journalists”. These claims are now recognized to be false.
The revelation, previously reported by the New York Times, could add to the pressure TikTok is facing in Washington from lawmakers and the Biden administration over security concerns about US user data.
Congress is set to pass legislation this week to ban state employees from downloading or using TikTok on their state-owned devices, and more than a dozen governors have barred state employees from using TikTok on state-owned devices.
The Financial Times said in a statement that “spying on journalists, interfering with their work or intimidating their sources was completely unacceptable. We will investigate this story more thoroughly before deciding our formal response.”
BuzzFeed News spokesperson Lizzie Grams said the company was deeply troubled by the report, saying it showed “a flagrant disregard for the privacy and rights of journalists as well as TikTok users”.
Forbes reported Thursday that ByteDance had tracked down several Forbes journalists, including some who previously worked at BuzzFeed “as part of a covert surveillance campaign” aimed at discovering the source of the leaks. Randall Lane, chief content officer for Forbes, called it “a direct attack on the idea of a free press and its critical role in a functioning democracy”.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said the company would “continue to improve these access protocols, which have already been significantly improved and hardened since this initiative took place”.
Chew said the company had been working over the past 15 months to build TikTok’s US data security department to ensure that protected TikTok US user data remains in the US.
“We are finalizing the migration of protected US user data management to the USDS branch and have systematically cut off access points,” he wrote.
ByteDance also said it was restructuring the internal audit and risk control department, and the global investigations function would be split up and restructured.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a national security agency, has been seeking for months to reach a national security agreement with ByteDance to protect the data of more than 100 million American TikTok users, but it appears that no deal will be reached before the end of the year. .
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said of the incident that ByteDance was “desperate to quell growing bipartisan concerns about how it enables the Chinese Communist Party to use — and potentially weaponize — the data of American citizens. Every day it becomes clearer that we need to ban TikTok.”
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