ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok, has been accused of providing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members access to the data of Hong Kong civil rights activists and demonstrators.
Former ByteDance executive Yintao Yu claims in a US court filing that users who submitted “protest-related content” were also recognized and monitored.
According to Mr Yu, CCP members were also able to obtain US TikTok user data.
A spokesman for ByteDance refuted the charges, calling them “baseless.”
The charges are disclosed in a San Francisco Superior Court filing this week as part of Mr Yu’s lawsuit.
Mr Yu said in the filing that members of a CCP committee had access to a “superuser” credential, also known as a “god user,” that allowed them to view all data acquired by ByteDance.
He further claimed that the committee members were not ByteDance employees but were present at the company’s Beijing headquarters.
This was widespread awareness among senior executives, according to Mr Yu, who worked as the head of engineering for ByteDance in the United States for around a year beginning in August 2017.
According to the petition, CCP committee members utilized their “god credential” in 2018 to “identify and locate Hong Kong protesters, civil rights activists, and protest supporters.”
In 2014, Hong Kong saw massive protests – the so-called Umbrella movement – in which people wanted the ability to choose their own leader. Following it, civil rights activists staged smaller protests. Much of this public opposition has vanished after Beijing cracked down with a severe national security law in the aftermath of the anti-government protests in 2019.
The necessary context for Hong Kong’s protests
When contacted by the BBC, a spokeswoman for ByteDance emphatically refuted the allegations, saying, “We plan to vigorously oppose what we believe are baseless claims and allegations in this complaint.”
They also stated that Mr Yu had been with the company for less than a year and worked on a now-defunct software called Flipagram during that time.
“It’s interesting that Mr Yu has never raised these allegations in the five years since his employment with Flipagram ended in July 2018.” “His actions are clearly intended to attract media attention,” said a ByteDance representative.
Mr Yu’s assertions come at a time when TikTok is under increasing investigation all across the world.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was grilled for four and a half hours at a US Senate hearing in March.
Both Democrats and Republicans grilled Mr Chew on the app’s data security and privacy standards, as well as its potential ties to Beijing.
TikTok’s representative afterwards stated that the politicians were “grandstanding.”
Montana became the first US state to impose a blanket ban on the Chinese-owned video-sharing platform in May.
The prohibition is set to go into force in January 2024. It makes it illegal for app shops to sell TikTok, but it does not prohibit existing TikTok users from utilizing it.
TikTok has filed a lawsuit to prevent Montana from enforcing the ban, claiming that it violates US free speech rights. Montana, which has a population of slightly more than one million people, banned the software from government devices in December.
TikTok claims to have 150 million users in the United States. Despite the fact that the app’s user base has grown in recent years, it is still most popular among teenagers and users in their twenties.