February 7, 2023

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TikTok admits to following FT journalists investigating leaks

ByteDance, the Chinese owner of viral social media platform TikTok, has admitted it improperly obtained users’ data, including a Financial Times journalist, to analyze their location as part of an internal leak investigation.

Over the summer, four members of ByteDance’s internal audit team investigated the disclosure of internal information to journalists.

Two employees in the US and two in China obtained access to the IP addresses and other personal data of FT journalist Cristina Criddle to find out if she was in the vicinity of ByteDance employees, the company said. However, the company could not find any leaks.

A BuzzFeed journalist and a number of users connected to the reporters through their TikTok accounts were also targeted.

Since June, the FT has published a series of stories led by Criddle that revealed dozens of workers had left TikTok’s London office since earlier this year, with some reporting working 12-hour days or after their furlough were downgraded. Some employees have also described a “kill list” of colleagues the company wanted to force out of its London office.

Joshua Ma, the ByteDance executive responsible for e-commerce expansion in Europe, was replaced after the FT revealed he had told London-based staff he “don’t believe” in maternity leave.

The results of ByteDance’s internal investigation, led by its global legal compliance team in conjunction with an outside law firm, were announced today in an email to employees and first reported by The New York Times. The investigation was sparked by an article in Forbes about lawmakers banning the app in the US over privacy and security concerns.

General Counsel Erich Andersen wrote to employees that last summer a “misguided plan was developed and executed by a few individuals within the internal audit department,” adding that those involved “abused their authority to gain access to TikTok user data.” to obtain”. its code of conduct.

In a separate email to employees, ByteDance CEO Liang Rubo wrote that the company “must thoroughly reflect on our actions and how we can prevent similar incidents from happening again.”

TikTok declined further comment.

As a result of Thursday’s revelations, one person resigned from the staff behavior team, while the other three were fired. ByteDance has since reorganized its internal audit team and removed that department’s access to US data.

News of the prosecution comes as TikTok is already facing mounting political backlash in the US over national security concerns that data it collects on American users could be leaked to the Chinese government and the Communist Party — claims it denies.

Last week, the US Senate voted unanimously to pass a bill that would ban federal employees from using TikTok on government-issued devices. Congress is expected to vote on it later this week. Meanwhile, several US states, including Maryland, Texas, and Iowa, have also taken action to ban employees from installing TikTok on government devices.

In response to the review, TikTok has been working on a national security deal with the US government for months. The deal, which has yet to be agreed, would involve a partnership with Oracle to put American user data on the US cloud software company’s servers and introduce tighter controls over whether and how Chinese employees can access that data.

The Financial Times said: “Spying on reporters, disrupting their work or intimidating their sources is totally unacceptable. We will investigate this story further before deciding on our formal response.”