Despite TikTok’s repeated assurances that U.S. user data is perfectly safe from the prying eyes of communist China, leaked audio suggests otherwise.
“Everything is seen in China,” a TikTok Trust and Safety Department member said in an audio recording from September 2021 according to a report last week by Buzzfeed News.
The outlet identified a total of 14 statements from nine TikTok employees that corroborated the social video platform’s lax policies that have allowed their China-based parent company ByteDance to access private information about American users.
A September recording has an alarming statement from a corporate executive noting that there is an engineer known as a “Master Admin” that “has access to everything.”
Former President Donald Trump seriously considered an outright ban on the social media platform in the summer of 2020 around the same time the Senate introduced a bill to prohibit it on government devices.
Trump confirms possible TikTok ban days after Joe Biden’s team was warned not to use it https://t.co/QFASKhkwSh
— Conservative News (@BIZPACReview) July 29, 2020
Several other statements confirm that the proposed restriction on the app with ties to China may not have been such a bad idea after all.
“I feel like with these tools, there’s some backdoor to access user data in almost all of them, which is exhausting,” a consultant said in September 2021 to another person.
However, a Booz Allen Hamilton spokesperson denied the consultant’s comment was true and called it “inaccurate.”
“[A]t this point I’m not in a position to further discuss or even confirm/deny our relationship with any client. But I can tell you that what you’re asserting here is inaccurate,” Jessica Klenk said.
Several other conversations in November 2021 suggest that there are hidden tools that were a complete mystery to data scientists working for TikTok.
“Nobody has really documented, uh, like, a how-to,” one data scientist said. “And there are items within the tools that nobody knows what they’re for.”
TikTok quickly published a response to the report to note that additional protections on U.S. user data were being implemented.
“We’re also making operational changes in line with this work – including the new department we recently established, with US-based leadership, to solely manage US user data for TikTok. Together, these changes will enforce additional employee protections, provide more safeguards, and further minimize data transfer outside of the US,” the Friday statement read.
“This is an important direction from a systems and data security standpoint, and part of our focus on preserving an interconnected experience for our global community while building a security-first culture,” it said.
But location isn’t everything, at least according to a digital and cyberspace policy expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Physical location does not matter if the data can still be accessed from China,” Adam Segal said in an email.
The “concern would be that data would still end up in the hands of Chinese intelligence if people in China were still accessing,” he added.
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