Fears that China could snoop on TikTok users were confirmed in leaked recordings of internal meetings held by the social media app’s parent company, according to a bombshell report on Friday.
The recordings revealed that ByteDance employees in China repeatedly accessed data linked to US users – raising new concerns about TikTok, which has already been banned in the United States over privacy concerns.
Audio clips from dozens of meetings revealed 14 statements from nine TikTok employees who said ByteDance engineers in China could access non-public data from US users, BuzzFeed reported, citing material from more than 80 meetings.
Chinese officials were able to access the information from at least September 2021 to January.
Leaked recordings suggest Beijing-based ByteDance’s ability to access US user data was more comprehensive than previously known – with a TikTok director claiming at a September 2021 meeting that an unnamed engineer at the China was “Master Admin” who “has access to everything.”
At a separate meeting the same month, a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department reportedly said that “everything is seen in China”.
BuzzFeed said the recordings were made at TikTok meetings, from closed-door conversations between company executives to general presentations. The report suggests that TikTok officials may have downplayed the extent to which China had access to their database in communications with congressional lawmakers and the public.
The channel said it compiled statements from eight different employees who said that TikTok employees in the US had to consult with colleagues in China to assess the flow of user information – with US employees lacking the ability to analyze the data.
TikTok is one of the most popular social media platforms, particularly among children and young adults, with over 1 billion active users worldwide.
“We know that we are among the most vetted platforms from a security standpoint, and we intend to remove any doubts about the security of US user data,” Maureen Shanahan, a spokeswoman for TikTok, said in a statement to BuzzFeed.
“That’s why we hire experts in their fields, continually work to validate our security standards, and bring in reputable, independent third parties to test our defenses,” the spokesperson added.
TikTok elaborated on its position in a separate statement to The Post.
“As we have publicly stated, we have brought in world-class internal and external security experts to help us strengthen our data security efforts,” said a TikTok spokesperson. “This is industry standard practice given the complexity of data security challenges.
“In May, we created a new in-house department, US Data Security (USDS), with US-based leadership, to provide a greater level of focus and governance on US data security,” the spokesperson added. “The creation of this organization is part of our ongoing effort and commitment to strengthen our data protection policies and protocols, further protect our users, and build trust in our systems and controls.”
TikTok sought to address user safety concerns in a blog post shortly before the BuzzFeed story was published. The blog post revealed that TikTok had migrated data from its US users to servers run by Oracle.
“We are also making operational changes in line with this work – including the new department we recently established, with US leadership, to manage only US user data for TikTok,” the blog post read. “Together, these changes will impose additional protections on employees, provide more safeguards, and further minimize the transfer of data outside the US.”
The administration of former President Donald Trump has repeatedly raised concerns that the Chinese Community Party could gain improper access to the personal data of American users. Trump officials argued that parent company ByteDance had direct links to officials in Beijing and posed a national security risk.
Trump tried to compel ByteDance to sell TikTok and also sought a total ban on downloads of the social media app by executive order. This latest effort was blocked by a federal judge.
Later, President Biden revoked the Trump-era effort to ban TikTok and instead ordered Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to conduct a review of apps that could pose a security risk.