Report: ByteDance Isolating TikTok From Rest of Chinese Operations Over Espionage Concerns

Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP (Getty Images)

China’s ByteDance, owner of wildly popular (and often deeply annoying) music app TikTok, has moved to segregate much of the app’s operations from the rest of its business in a bid to convince the U.S. government user data is safe from the prying eyes of Chinese spies, Reuters reported on Wednesday.

ByteDance acquired the U.S.-based app Musical.ly in 2017 for a billion dollars, helping TikTok to rapidly acquire hundreds of millions of users. According to Reuters, the company hopes to reassure the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) that user data is safe from the Chinese government in order to avoid the fate of Beijing Kunlun Tech Co Ltd, which the committee compelled to agree to divest gay dating app Grindr in May 2019.

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User data acquired by TikTok would include names, ages, email addresses, phone numbers, location data, account credentials (potentially including reused passwords), and of course any content uploaded to the app. The fear goes, much as it has accumulated around other Chinese-owned corporations that have attracted U.S. scrutiny like Huawei, that due to the lack of privacy protections in China all the nation’s security services need to do is ask and they will suddenly be granted access to all of that information.

According to Reuters, a source said that steps ByteDance has taken include separating TikTok’s “product and business development, marketing and legal teams from those of its Chinese social media app Douyin” earlier this year. It also hired a third-party consultant to audit how it handles personal data and reiterated it stores all U.S. user data stateside, as well as stated TikTok content is beyond the jurisdiction of Chinese authorities.

Furthermore, it is hiring more U.S. engineers to work on TikTok and creating a data management oversight team in Mountain View, California, sources told Reuters.

Reports that ByteDance is the target of a CFIUS national security probe focusing on the Musical.ly acquisition first popped up around the start of November. The U.S. Army, which launched a recruitment campaign via the app, has also launched its own security assessment aimed at determining whether the risks of using the app outweighed the gains.

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According to Reuters, ByteDance views the CFIUS probe as informal, and sources said that CFIUS has not raised any questions about censorship on the app. One user recently claimed that her account was suspended after she posted a TikTok criticizing the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims—specifically widespread accounts that hundreds of thousands have been or are being processed through concentration camps in Xinjiang—though ByteDance insisted it was because a previous TikTok from the user’s account featured a photo of Osama bin Laden, setting off automated terrorism filters.

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Tom McKay

"... An upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups online." - Washington Post