Former ByteDance exec says China can access TikTok user data, even when it's stored on US soil

In an amendment to his wrongful termination suit, Yintao Yu outlines his alleged witnessing of how ByteDance supplies user data to the CCP.
Written by Jada Jones, Associate Editor
TikTok logo on a phone
SOPA Images/Contributor/Getty Images

Yintao "Roger" Yu, a former ByteDance executive based in California, filed a lawsuit against his former employer alleging a list of wrongdoings. According to Yu, ByteDance has stolen content from other creators online, discriminated against employees, and inflated its engagement metrics.

A striking allegation Yu made against ByteDance has been highly suspected but yet to be proven. Yu alleges that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the ruling political party in China, can and has accessed TikTok user data.

Also: TikTok bans explained: Everything you need to know

Yu alleges that the CCP uses ByteDance as a political propaganda tool and cites two examples in which he witnessed ByteDance promote or demote content on TikTok that aligned with the CCP's political goals.

According to the court filings, "Mr. Yu observed that ByteDance has been responsive to the CCP's requests to share information, and even to elevate or remove content at the request of the CCP."

Yu alleges that ByteDance promoted content that expressed hatred for Japan, and in 2018, ByteDance demoted content that expressed support for political protests in Hong Kong. Yu alleges this was possible in Hong Kong because the CCP monitored activists' locations via backdoor data access.

Also: TikTok gives users another small peek into its algorithm's powerful mechanics

Yu says that the same propagandist methods ByteDance facilitated in Hong Kong could be deployed in the US, as US TikTok user data is also available to the CCP via backdoor access. Yu also alleges that the CCP can access this data even if a US company hosts it on US soil.

This allegation hints at TikTok's billion-dollar investment, Project Texas, a collaboration between TikTok and US SaaS company Oracle, to transfer and oversee all US TikTok user data on US soil.

If Yu's allegations are true, that means Project Texas cannot limit or block the Chinese government's access to US user data.

In March, TikTok CEO Shou Chew testified in front of Congress and stressed that Project Texas would assuage lawmakers' concerns about the CCP accessing US TikTok data. Yu says he "was struck by the misdirection" of Chew's testimony concerning Project Texas.

According to Yu's filing, storing US user data on US soil does not mean the CCP cannot access the data, and the only way to ensure China cannot access the data is to shut the backdoor.

Also: Instagram feed fix: How to see more of what you want (and less of what you don't)

ByteDance owns both TikTok and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok that only operates in China. The Chinese government has strict rules for the Chinese internet, and according to Yu, one of them is that tech companies must turn over user data to the government.

Yu says that ByteDance highly values Douyin and TikTok, but both are at risk due to this law. He alleges that if ByteDance does not allow the CCP access to its user data, the government will shut down Douyin in retaliation.

Although TikTok is separate from Douyin, ByteDance's operations are based in China, and the company must maintain relations with the CCP to keep Douyin available in China. However, TikTok's fate in the US and worldwide is in danger, should it be true that the CCP can access user data.

Also: How to go live on TikTok (and how it can earn you real money)

In another section of his suit, Yu alleges that the CCP has a special office within ByteDance, referred to as the Committee. He says the Committee monitors the company, could shut down operations at any moment, and maintains access to company data.

Yu says an engineer in Beijing could access US user data, even if it were stored on a server in the US. After this practice was scrutinized by American lawmakers, Beijing engineers' access to US data was revoked, but the Committee's access remained.

TikTok declined to address Yu's allegations, but a ByteDance spokesperson discredited the allegations by mentioning that Yu did not work for TikTok but for Flipagram, another ByteDance-owned app.

Also: Want to create better TikToks and Reels? You need one of these ring lights 

ByteDance's spokesperson questioned Yu's intentions by mentioning that Yu was terminated from Flipagram in 2018 and is now coming forward with his allegations.

According to CNN, many security experts say Yu's allegations are the first bits of evidence that the CCP spies on TikTok users. Experts also say these allegations may justify the push to ban the app in the US.

However, these allegations are found in a wrongful termination lawsuit and do not supply any further evidence, like internal memos or messages. Yu is the first former ByteDance employee to publicly allege that the relationship between ByteDance and the CCP is too close for comfort.

Editorial standards