Chinese staff can access TikTok’s US data: Report

India’s decision to ban the Chinese short-form video app TikTok on security concerns, and former US President Donald Trump’s threats to do so might have been well-founded.
Although TikTok’s Chinese parent ByteDance denies sharing user data with the Chinese government, leaked audio from more than 80 internal meetings of TikTok employees that was reviewed by Buzzfeed News suggests the risk of this happening remains.
While TikTok claims the data of its American users is safe as it is stored within the US, not China, the leaked conversations indicate ByteDance employees in China have “repeatedly accessed non-public data about US TikTok users”.
According to Buzzfeed News, in one of the audio clips a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department is heard saying: “Everything is seen in China.” In another clip, a TikTok director refers to a Beijing-based engineer as a “master admin” who “has access to everything”.
While a TikTok executive had told the US Senate last year that access to its US data was strictly governed by a US-based security team, in reality “US employees had to turn to their colleagues in China to determine how US user data was flowing. US staff did not have permission or knowledge of how to access the data on their own.”
The risk of American users’ data falling into the Chinese government’s hands has increased since the Chinese crackdown on tech firms started last year. The primary risk is that “the government could force ByteDance to collect and turn over information (from TikTok) as a form of ‘data espionage’”.
But China could also use TikTok to harm America in a more insidious way, the Buzzfeed News report says. The app’s “For You” algorithm, which recommends what a user should view next, could be tweaked to show videos that “influence Americans’ commercial, cultural, or political behavior”. This is a very real possibility given that social media algorithms were suspected to have influenced Trump’s election in 2016.

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