Ex-TikTok Employees Say They Worked Closely With its China-Based Parent Company



Apr 15, 2024

Fortune reporting – In January, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew appeared before U.S. lawmakers to address concerns about TikTok’s connections to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, and potential risks to national security. Chew maintained that the social media platform had largely severed its links with ByteDance, despite skepticism from U.S. officials.

However, contrasting accounts from former employees suggest that TikTok’s operations remain intertwined with ByteDance, revealing that the separation might be more superficial than previously stated. These allegations stem from interviews conducted between August and April, where former employees expressed concerns over retaliation and claimed that the independence touted by TikTok executives was largely a facade.

Evan Turner, a former senior data scientist at TikTok, shared insights that contradict the company’s official stance on operational independence from ByteDance. Turner disclosed that despite public claims of autonomy, he was secretly reporting to a ByteDance executive in Beijing rather than his assigned American manager in Seattle.

This covert arrangement persisted even after TikTok announced a major initiative to exclusively store U.S. user data within the United States, suggesting a significant discrepancy between TikTok’s public declarations and its actual practices. Furthermore, Turner was responsible for sending extensive U.S. user data to ByteDance, undermining the stated objective of keeping such data within U.S. borders and accessible only to U.S. personnel.

Amid these revelations, TikTok continued to face legislative challenges, with the U.S. House of Representatives voting overwhelmingly to ban the app unless ByteDance divests its stake, indicating ongoing national security concerns. This situation is exacerbated by conflicting opinions among cybersecurity experts regarding the potential impact and seriousness of TikTok’s alleged data sharing practices. While some experts view the sharing of sensitive geographical data as a significant security threat, others suggest that such issues might be attributed to transitional challenges within the company.

The issue of data privacy extends beyond the U.S. as internal TikTok communications systems like Lark, shared with ByteDance, potentially expose U.S. user discussions to surveillance by Chinese teams. This system and others have led to skepticism about the integrity of TikTok’s data security measures, despite efforts to localize data storage and processing. The ongoing controversy surrounding TikTok’s data practices and its relationship with ByteDance raises questions about the effectiveness of corporate governance and regulatory compliance, especially in the context of geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China.

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