Former employee accuses ByteDance of helping China spy on Hong Kong activists

This might just push the U.S to put a countrywide-ban on TikTok.
Sejal Sharma
The TikTok app on a phone
The TikTok app on a phone

Wikimedia Commons 

New revelations regarding an alleged nexus between TikTok’s owner ByteDance and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have come to the fore. In a lawsuit filed at the San Francisco Superior Court in the U.S., a fired ByteDance employee has accused his former employer of allowing the Chinese government to access TikTok data of civil rights activists and protesters involved in the Hong Kong demonstrations.

Yintao Yu was a top engineering executive handling ByteDance’s U.S. operations. First reported by The Wall Street Journal, Yu claimed in the lawsuit that CCP members had access to a ‘god credential’ back in 2018, allowing them to view all data collected by ByteDance.

"This was a backdoor to any barrier ByteDance had supposedly installed to protect data from the Chinese Communist Party's surveillance," Yu explained in the court filing. He has also alleged that the CCP members would be present from time to time at the company’s headquarters in Beijing.

Yu had filed a case of unlawful termination against ByteDance in May. He alleged that he was fired after complaining about the company’s illegal conduct to the upper management. In the May filing, Yu said that ByteDance was stealing copyrighted content from platforms like Instagram and Snapchat and exaggerating its user metric.

Last month, he had also accused the company of being in cahoots with the Chinese government by suppressing content favorable to the nation’s interests and promoting communist values.

BBC spoke to a ByteDance spokesperson who denied the allegations: "We plan to vigorously oppose what we believe are baseless claims and allegations in this complaint."

This may further the U.S.-China geopolitical tensions

The allegations come when TikTok faces heightened scrutiny over transferring the private data of 150 million U.S TikTok users back to China from the States. The Biden-led administration has even threatened to ban the app if ByteDance’s Chinese investors don’t sell their stakes in the company. 

In fact, TikTok CEO Shou Chew testified before Congress in March to defend a blanket ban on the app. He had said in a statement: “Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country.”

Benjamin Ho, coordinator of the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore (RSIS), told TIME magazine that if Yu’s allegations are proven true, it will likely exacerbate existing geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China. “The United States will certainly be very pissed off.”

Last month, Montana became the first state in the U.S. to ban the app. The ban will come into effect in January 2024. Federal employees have been prohibited from using TikTok on their government-issued phones in other countries like the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, the European Union, Canada, and Taiwan.

The protests that Yu spoke of were two large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations that Hong Kong had witnessed recently. One occurred in 2014 - the Umbrella Revolution - when people demanded universal suffrage. The second major protest occurred from 2019 to 2020 against an extradition law that enabled China to return Hong Kong offenders to the mainland.

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