Lawsuit Claims China Used TikTok to Spy on Hong Kong Activists

In 2018, China’s Communist Party (CCP) used a “god credential” to watch and track Hong Kong activists and protesters, a former ByteDance employee said in a lawsuit. This “god credential” lets the CCP access user data collected by ByteDance, which owns TikTok.

In a court filing, Yintao “Roger” Yu, a former head of engineering at ByteDance in the United States, said that a special committee in Beijing had a backdoor to defenses built by ByteDance to protect user data and used this access to spy on users in Hong Kong.

“The device identifiers of protesters, supporters, and civil rights activists were tracked, along with their network information, SIM card IDs, and IP addresses,” Yu said in a filing that was sent to a San Francisco court this week.

“This information was used to find out who the people were and where they were. The TikTok app saves all of the users’ direct messages, search histories, material they’ve watched, and how long they watched it for. From the logs, I could see that the Committee had access to the unique user data, locations, and communications of protesters, civil rights leaders, and supporters.

In the filing, Yu said that ByteDance execs are well aware that the “god credential” exists, which goes against promises they have made to lawmakers in the US and other countries who are debating whether or not to ban TikTok for national security reasons.

Yu’s claims are part of a lawsuit against ByteDance for wrongful termination. The former executive said in a court filing in May that the backdoor “lets certain high-level persons access user data, no matter where the data is located, even if it’s hosted by a US company with servers in the US.”

Yu also said that he saw ByteDance use TikTok to further the CCP’s political goals. According to the filing, ByteDance promoted content “that expressed hatred for Japan” and demoted content that supported Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement democracy protests.

The filing also says that ByteDance took data from its own website and those of rivals like Instagram and Snapchat without permission.

Yu is suing ByteDance because he says the company fired him for complaining about illegal behavior at the company, which is against whistleblower rights, and because of his disability-related medical leave, which was treated unfairly.

ByteDance, whose main office is in Beijing, said Wednesday that the lawsuit’s claims were not true.

“It’s strange that Mr. Yu hasn’t said anything about these claims in the five years since Flipagram fired him in July 2018. “It’s clear that what he’s doing is meant to get attention from the media,” a spokesman said in a statement to Al Jazeera.

“We are going to fight hard against what we think are false accusations and claims in this lawsuit. Mr. Yu worked for ByteDance Inc. for less than a year, until July 2018, when his job finished. During the short time he worked for the company, he helped make an app called Flipagram, which was taken off the market years ago for business reasons.

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