Several reports have been released confirming that a couple ByteDance employees accessed two reporters’ data through their TikTok accounts. Personal information, including their physical locations, had been used as part of an attempt to find the writers’ sources, after a series of damaging stories about ByteDance. According to the report, two employees in China and two in the US left the company following an internal investigation. In a staff memo, ByteDance’s chief executive lamented the incident as the “misconduct of a few individuals”. One of the reporters writes for the Financial Times.
It is worth noting that this phenomenon of privacy invasion is nothing new. By the time ByteDance was founded in Beijing in 2012, Google had been reading our emails over our shoulders, Amazon had been watching us shop and Twitter and Facebook had been mediating our messages to friends and foes for years. Indeed, Zhang Yiming, the millennial software engineer who set up ByteDance, modelled himself and aspects of his new company in Silicon Valley.
It cannot be argued that TikTok is one of the fastest growing apps ever. Its success felt almost overnight-like with lockdown mockeries of teenage TikTok dances growing into a corporate obsession within less than a year. Nevertheless, such rapid growth also made it a target for Beijing’s recent crackdown on Big Tech. In 2018, one of ByteDance’s other apps was accused of promoting immoral content by state media. When it was eventually pulled down, Zhang wrote a public letter of apology, pledging greater censorship of ByteDance content. Along with other prominent tech founders, Zhang stood down as chairman in 2021. (He retains a 20 per cent stake in ByteDance, with a separate class of shares that give him additional voting rights and veto powers.)
American FBI director Christopher Wray believes that TikTok is “a tool that is ultimately within the control of the Chinese government… to me, it screams out with national security concerns”. Such concerns led TikTok to be put on trial at US congress over concerns for the privacy of users. When the app’s current CEO, Shou Zi Chew, appeared before US lawmakers in Washington in March, he managed to pull off the rare feat of uniting Democrats and Republicans. During an intense hearing lasting five hours, Shou was asked about everything from the negative impact of TikTok on teens’ mental health to the selling of drugs on the app and, in an echo of age-old moral panics about Elvis and The Beatles, the corruption of the nation’s youth.
The US isn’t the only country to express concerns over TikTok privacy. Last month, the company was fined £12.7mn in the UK for misusing the personal data of children under 13 and allowing them to access the platform, despite that being against its own rules.
To make matters weirder, several reports have come out which state that TikTok keeps a detailed track of personal data and user content. Most notably, a report by the Wall Street Journal revealed that TikTok allegedly compiled a list of users monitored for watching gay content on the platform.The employees, located in the US, UK, and Australia, reported the issue to top executives, according to The Journal. They expressed worries about the potential sharing of this information with external parties or its potential use for blackmail.
During his testimony, Shou, who is Singaporean, repeated the company line: ByteDance is private; 60 percent of the company is owned by “global institutional investors”; it is officially headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore. Then, half an hour in, he was asked by the chair, Cathy McMorris Rodgers: “TikTok spied on American journalists. Can you say with 100 per cent certainty that neither ByteDance nor TikTok employees can target other Americans with similar surveillance techniques?” Shou looked assured as he replied: “First of all, I disagree with the characterisation that it is spying.” When pushed for a yes or no, he gave neither.
After several messy invasions and investigations, regulations are coming through slowly in the UK and EU. Despite the belligerent tone of US politicians, a total ban for TikTok seems unlikely. It would undoubtedly cause an uproar among free speech advocates, not to mention an enormous number of young people who love the platform. It is also hard to imagine an app as thoroughly embedded in popular culture being erased from our lives overnight. Except, maybe, in China.