TikTok executives delegate key decisions to CCP officials, employees say

(Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters)

TikTok has worked over the past year to move American user data to the United States amid concerns from US officials that the Chinese Communist Party could potentially access the data, although a new report shows that the TikTok’s ties to its Chinese parent company could pose a host of other security concerns.

TikTok worked last year on what is known internally as “Project Texas”, which includes creating US-specific clones of TikTok’s internal systems, including tracking and analytics tools. , as well as the application’s recommendation algorithm, BuzzFeed News reported.

However, the outlet says it has interviewed more than a dozen current and former TikTok employees who have described TikTok and its China-based parent company, ByteDance, as “sometimes so closely tied” it’s hard to know. where one stops and the other begins.

The workers said BuzzFeed about some senior management decisions made by unknown actors in Beijing, while other employees said their managers made key product decisions after “talking to Beijing”, according to the report. Ten of the employees who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they did not know who their managers, or their managers’ managers, reported to.

An employee told the outlet that he was asked to enter sensitive information into a .cn domain.

Meanwhile, ByteDance reportedly controls TikTok’s workplace infrastructure and has the right to share the company’s internal communications with governments, raising concerns that sensitive internal communications could be shared with the CCP.

According to the report, TikTok employees use ByteDance’s suite of workplace tools, Lark, for communications and administrative tasks. The tool suite’s privacy policy states that the company may share data, which is stored in Singapore, “to assist in law enforcement and investigations by any governmental and/or regulatory authority.”

Several US-based employees told the outlet that they use Feishu, ByteDance’s suite of tools for mainland China. Feishu Privacy Policy says the company can share user data, which is stored in China, when it is “directly related” to national security, public safety or other “substantial public interests”.

A ByteDance spokesperson said BuzzFeed the Chinese government never requested TikTok employee communications from Feishu or Lark.

Much of the focus on TikTok’s potential security issues has been on US user data. The report notes that Project Texas does not appear to be defending itself against other means by which the CCP could exert influence on the platform, including by modifying TikTok’s algorithms to increase exposure to divisive content or by using the platform to launch misinformation campaigns.

The app before censorship videos on topics of Chinese political importance, The Guardian reported in 2019. Meanwhile, the company paid $92 million to settle a class action lawsuit last year accusing TikTok of transferring US user data to servers in China.

Upon taking office last year, President Joe Biden reversed an executive order signed by former President Donald Trump that would have effectively banned TikTok and replaced it with new guidelines to examine the app’s potential risk. for US consumer data.

A tentative deal has been reached for Oracle to buy TikTok in 2020 after Trump announced he would ban the platform if it was not sold to a US company. The sale was suspended in February 2021 after Trump’s departure.

Now TikTok and Oracle reportedly brokered a deal for Oracle to store all US user data. Access to this data would be limited to a specific team, US Tech Services (USTS). The new US systems would be housed in data centers owned by Oracle.

However, it has not yet been decided how much control ByteDance’s Beijing team will have over the USTS team, employees reportedly told BuzzFeed News.

While USTS employees currently report to middle managers in the United States who report to a ByteDance executive in China, the company is considering ways to restrict Chinese executives’ access to USTS information, said sources at BuzzFeed News.

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