It was a suspicion for a long time, but now it’s official: the social media app TikTok is spying on its users. Three US journalists who reported critically on the social network are affected.
With more than 30 million users, TikTok is one of the most popular social media platforms in the world. Now it has become known that employees of the network had access to IP addresses and other private data of some users. Specifically, this concerns research sources of US journalists. The parent company ByteDance has since admitted the allegations.
What data is involved?
According to research by Forbes magazine, ByteDance employees used the IP address of the journalists with which the media professionals had logged on to TikTok. This allowed the company to track their current location at any time. Three Forbes journalists who had previously worked for the online magazine Buzzfeed are affected. In the fall, Buzzfeed published voice recordings that confirmed TikTok’s access to data of US users. In addition, log files had been retrieved that could be used to verify contact between TikTok employees and journalists.
Scandal with international implications
The espionage incident is particularly explosive because TikTok maintains close ties to the Chinese dictatorship. The U.S. Department of Justice even described ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming as a mouthpiece of the Communist Party because of his ties to the Chinese state leadership. The company had repeatedly emphasized that it would respect U.S. data protection laws. However, the current incident raises questions about TikTok’s business model and trustworthiness.
ByteDance regrets incidents
An internal investigation has now brought the full background of the scandal to light. According to Forbes, 15 ByteDance employees work for Chinese state propaganda. In addition, the company had not only accessed the journalists’ data, but also data of their contacts, the report said. ByteDance itself promptly responded. “I am disappointed. The misconduct of certain individuals was an egregious abuse of power and does not comply with our policies,” TikTok spokeswoman Hilary McQuaide said in a statement. Chris Lepitak, the employee responsible for the surveillance activities, was immediately fired. The senior manager to whom Lepitak reported also vacated his post. The incident significantly weakens the platform’s already controversial position in the US. Already, civil servants in 19 U.S. states are prohibited from installing TikTok on their work cell phones.