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This story first appeared in China Report, MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about...
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Chinese government tracked Hong Kong protesters with TikTok: suit


A former executive at TikTok parent ByteDance claimed Chinese Communist Party officials had access to a “god credential” on the social media platform that allowed them to track pro-democracy protesters and civil rights activists in Hong Kong, according to a court filing.

Yintao “Roger” Yu, the former head of engineering for ByteDance’s US operations, made the allegation as part of a wrongful termination case filed in San Francisco Superior Court. He left the company in 2018.

“This was a backdoor to any barrier ByteDance had supposedly installed to protect data from the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance,” the court filing said.

Yu added that the CCP’s access to a “superuser credential,” also known as a “god credential,” was “commonly discussed between employees at various levels of the company, including senior executives.”

According to Yu, CCP officials used the backdoor access to monitor key data linked to Hong Kong protesters, including their locations, personal devices, IP addresses and SIM card numbers, as well as personal communications on TikTok.


TikTok officials have denied the Chinese government can access US user data.
REUTERS

The filing further alleged that ByteDance promoted CCP propaganda while suppressing content related to the Hong Kong protests.

“Yu observed that ByteDance demoted content that expressed support for the protests in Hong Kong (“Umbrella Revolution”), while it promoted content that expressed criticisms of the protests in Hong Kong,” the filing said.

The Wall Street Journal was first to report on the filing.

The legal battle is unfolding as TikTok executives scramble to avert a total ban in the US, where lawmakers from both parties have argued the app poses a national security concern and has failed to protect underage users from harmful content.


Hong Kong protests
ByteDance allegedly allowed the CCP with backdoor access to the personal data of Hong Kong protesters.
AP

When reached for comment, a ByteDance spokesperson said the company plans to “vigorously oppose what we believe are baseless claims and allegations in this complaint.”

The spokesperson said Yu was employed at the company for less than a year and had worked on an app called Flipagram, which was “discontinued years ago for business reasons.”

“It’s curious that Mr. Yu has never raised these allegations in the five years since his employment for Flipagram was terminated in July 2018,” the ByteDance spokesperson said. “His actions are clearly intended to garner media attention.”


ByteDance
Yintao “Roger” Yu was the former head of engineering for ByteDance’s US operations.
REUTERS

TikTok has not been available in Hong Kong since 2020, when the ByteDance-owned entity pulled out of the region following the implementation of a national security law.

Hong Kong residents who attempt to access the app see an error message.

As The Post reported last month, Yu alleged in his lawsuit that the CCP “maintained supreme access” to all data held by TikTok parent ByteDance — including information for US users.

Yu claims he was ousted from ByteDance after raising concerns about the practices to his superiors.

The former executive also alleged that ByteDance engaged in “brazenly unlawful conduct,” such as stealing video content from viral platforms such as Instagram.


TikTok
TikTok faces a potential US ban.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

Yu’s attorney, Charles Yung, said his client decided to speak out about his experience because he was “disturbed to hear the recent Congressional testimony of TikTok’s CEO,” Shou Zi Chew, who repeatedly denied that the Chinese government could access US user data.

“Telling the truth openly in court is risky, but social change requires the courage to tell the truth,” Jung told the Associated Press. “It’s important to him that public policy be based on accurate information, so he’s determined to tell his story.”

With Post wires



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