ByteDance, the Chinese firm that owns the popular short video app TikTok, announced on Thursday that some of its employees were fired for improperly accessing the TikTok user data of two journalists.
ByteDance general counsel Erich Andersen said in an email that the employees had obtained the data as part of an unsuccessful investigation into information leaks from the company earlier this year.
The employees were looking for any connections between two journalists — a former BuzzFeed reporter and a Financial Times reporter — and company employees.
The workers examined the IP addresses of the journalists in an effort to determine whether they were in the same area as staff members suspected of leaking confidential information.
Also on AF TV: TikTok Gives Google a Run For its Money
The admission, reported earlier by the New York Times, could add to pressure TikTok is facing in Washington from lawmakers and the Biden administration over security concerns about US user data.
Four ByteDance employees who were involved in the event, including two in China and two in the US, were fired, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
And now company representatives have said they are taking extra precautions to safeguard user data.
The Financial Times said in a statement that “spying on reporters, interfering with their work or intimidating their sources is completely unacceptable. We’ll be investigating this story more fully before deciding our formal response.”
BuzzFeed News spokesperson Lizzie Grams said the company was deeply disturbed by the report, saying it showed “a blatant disregard for the privacy and rights of journalists as well as TikTok users.”
The US Congress is set to enact legislation this week prohibiting US government employees from installing or using the app on their government-owned devices. Governors of more than a dozen states have already prohibited federal employees from using TikTok on state-owned devices.
’Not representative of TikTok principles’
On Thursday, Forbes reported ByteDance had tracked multiple Forbes journalists including some who formerly worked at BuzzFeed “as part of a covert surveillance campaign” aimed at discovering the source of leaks.
Randall Lane, the chief content officer of Forbes, called it “a direct assault on the idea of a free press and its critical role in a functioning democracy.”
TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew said in an email to employees that such “misconduct is not at all representative of what I know our company’s principles to be.”
He said the company “will continue to enhance these access protocols, which have already been significantly improved and hardened since this initiative took place.”
Chew said that over the past 15 months the company had been working to build TikTok US Data Security (USDS) to ensure protected TikTok US user data stays in the United States.
“We are completing the migration of protected US user data management to the USDS department and have been systematically cutting off access points,” he wrote.
ByteDance also said it was restructuring the Internal Audit and Risk Control department, and the global investigations function would be split out and restructured.
A national security agreement between the US government and ByteDance to safeguard the data of more than 100 million US TikTok users has been sought for months by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), but it appears no deal will be reached before year’s end.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio said ByteDance “is desperate to tamp down growing bipartisan concerns about how it enables the Chinese Communist Party to use – and potentially weaponise – the data of American citizens. Every day it becomes more clear that we need to ban TikTok.”
- Reuters, with additional editing by Vishakha Saxena