CNBC published this piece about TikTok last Friday. They spoke to a number of US-based former employees who say there is really no clear dividing line between the company’s US organization and ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns it. That means that any and all personal data on the sites 92 million US users is searchable by the Chinese company.
The former employees who spoke to CNBC said the boundaries between TikTok and ByteDance were so blurry as to be almost non-existent.
Most notably, one employee said that ByteDance employees are able to access U.S. user data.This was highlighted in a situation where an American employee working on TikTok needed to get a list of global users, including Americans, who searched for or interacted with a specific type of content — that means users who searched for a specific term or hashtag or liked a particular category of videos. This employee had to reach out to a data team in China in order to access that information. The data the employee received included users’ specific IDs, and they could pull up whatever information TikTok had about those users. This type of situation was confirmed as a common occurrence by a second employee.
This isn’t the only time we’ve seen this kind of arrangement between China and major companies. Last month the NY Times published an investigation into Apple’s arrangements in the country. It turns out that all of the data on Apple’s customers is stored in servers that are run by a Chinese company called Guizhou-Cloud Big Data. Even the encryption keys meant to protect that data are stored locally in China, meaning that the Chinese government could potentially demand access to everything Apple’s Chinese users keep on their phones. This isn’t a supposition, it’s actually written into Chinese law:
“ByteDance is a Chinese company, and they’re subject to Chinese national law, which says that whenever the government asks for the data a company is holding for whatever reason, the company must turn it over. They have no right to appeal,” said Jim Lewis, senior vice president and director, strategic technologies program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a foreign affairs think tank. Lewis previously worked for various agencies in the U.S. government, including on Chinese espionage.
“If the Chinese government wants to look at the data that ByteDance is collecting, they can do so, and no one can say anything about it,” Lewis said.
In the case of Apple, the exposure was limited to Chinese customers. But with Tik Tok, Byte Dance has direct access to data on US customers including what videos they watched and uploaded. By archiving this information on millions of Americans who are mostly teenagers, China puts itself in a position to use this information later when some of these people will be adults in government positions:
Some experts said they’re concerned that content created by a teenager now and uploaded to TikTok, even as an unpublished draft, could come back to haunt that same person if they later land a high-level job at a notable American company or start working within the U.S. government.
“I’d be shocked if they are not storing all the videos being posted by teenagers,” Kumar said. “Twenty years from now, 30 years from now, 50 years from now when we want to nominate our next justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, at that time they will go back and find everything they can and then they’ll decide what to do with it.”…
“Given the Chinese government’s authoritarian bent and attitudes, that’s where people are really concerned with what they might do,” said Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank.
Maybe that sounds far-fetched but given China’s obvious interest in collecting data on Americans for possible exploitation, we ought to take it seriously.