A handful of ByteDance employees in the US and China tracked a cat’s TikTok account in order to find the IP address of its owner, a reporter covering the company. Buffy, a black and white Maine Coon-looking kitty named after the vampire slayer, reportedly had 170 followers and 20 posts when the employees viewed the data. The traumatizing tracking has reportedly forced Buffy off of social media: Cristina Criddle, the cat’s owner and a reporter for the Financial Times, said Buffy “sadly is no longer making content.”
Criddle revealed those details in a recent article detailing the moments TikTok fessed up to tracking her location in a botched effort to sniff out a leaker in the company. Criddle says she received a “cryptic” phone call from a TikTok PR director in December right before the holidays informing her she was one of two journalists who had been surveilled by four employees. The employees monitored the reporters’ location data to see if they were in the proximity of ByteDance employees who could be connected to the leak. It didn’t work.
“It was just really chilling and horrible and, personally, quite violating,” Criddle told the BBC. Criddle said she used the account from her mobile device but that her own name and occupation were not included in the bio. The reporter says she still hasn’t received complete answers from ByteDance about how long she was tracked. TikTok did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
The journalist still reports on the company but says she now uses her old device as a “dummy phone” stored at her office and kept solely for accessing the app. Criddle said she’s had to cut back on both her and Buffy’s social media use across platforms following the incident. Even now, months later, she says anxiety induced by the monitoring still keeps her up at night.
“At times I have struggled to sleep, thinking about what ByteDance employees might have found out about me,” Criddle said. “For a while, I often canceled plans out and, whenever I spoke to or met new sources, I felt on edge.”
TikTok’s unforced error
The tracking effort ultimately failed to find the leaker and resulted in a publicity nightmare for ByteDance and TikTok. As a result of the snafu, ByteDance fired all four of the employees involved in the scheme and re-structured its internal audit team. Still, the missteps only emboldened the company’s critics, who’ve spoken out about Chinese employees accessing US user data. Lawmakers from both parties grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew over the issue during a combative hearing in March. Chew claimed the monitoring didn’t amount to “spying.” Either way, the employee’s actions caught the attention of the Department of Justice, which has launched an investigation into the company.
The former employee’s IP monitoring saga has provided lawmakers in the US looking to ban the app even more ammunition. There are currently around half a dozen bills floating around Congres that, one way or another, would result in TikTok being restricted on US devices. In Montana, the legislature made history last month by passing the first state-wide TikTok ban, leaving thousands of local creators unsure of what comes next.