REPORT: China-Based TikTok Employees Monitored Two U.S. Journalists

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James Lynch Investigative Reporter
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Employees of TikTok’s China-based parent company ByteDance obtained the data of two reporters via their TikTok accounts, an internal investigation discovered.

ByteDance employees responsible for employee conduct were searching for who leaked internal documents and conversations to journalists. During their search, the employees accessed data of two reporters and their connections via their TikTok accounts, according to ByteDance. The employees failed to find any leaks.

The internal investigation followed a Forbes report about ByteDance employees accessing U.S. TikTok data without users’ knowledge, according to the New York Times. ByteDance revealed the findings of the investigation to employees in a Thursday email, NYT reported.

“I was deeply disappointed when I was notified of the situation. . . and I’m sure you feel the same,” ByteDance CEO Rubo Liang said in an email to employees. “The public trust that we have spent huge efforts building is going to be significantly undermined by the misconduct of a few individuals,” Liang added.

Two of the employees were based in China and two in the United States. One employee resigned and three were fired, the Times reported. The affected journalists write for Buzzfeed and Financial Times, NYT reported.

A separate Forbes report alleged TikTok monitored three Forbes tech journalists who formerly worked for Buzzfeed. The journalists have published multiple investigative reports containing damaging information about TikTok and ByteDance. (RELATED: Senate Votes To Ban TikTok On Government Phones)

One Buzzfeed report alleged nonpublic U.S. user data was repeatedly accessed by engineers in China, based on leaked audio from 80 internal TikTok meetings. Buzzfeed’s findings were cited by GOP Rep. Diana Harshbarger of Tennessee during a Nov. 15 House Homeland Security Committee hearing about global terror threats.

A separate Buzzfeed report found ByteDance planted pro-China propaganda and censored negative stories about China on its now-defunct U.S. news app. Four ByteDance employees who worked on the app told Buzzfeed about instructions from ByteDance to put pro-China messaging at the top of the app.

TikTok is currently working on a national security deal with the Biden administration to enable the platform to operate in the U.S. without altering its ownership structure, NYT reported Sept. 26. The deal has been delayed because of additional security concerns from U.S. officials, WSJ reported Dec. 6.

The company has built up a U.S compliance unit in partnership with Oracle Corp to address U.S. officials’ national security concerns, Reuters reported.

TikTok agreed to have its U.S. app data stored by Oracle and outsource content moderation decisions to a U.S. data security unit within TikTok. Former Secret Service Agent Andrew Bonillo is currently running the division on an interim basis, Reuters said.

TikTok recently expanded Oracle’s ability to review its infrastructure to ensure it is separate from ByteDance and address oversight concerns held by government officials, according to Reuters.

The platform has proposed a separate board to run the U.S data security unit, with members screened by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) within the Treasury Department. The committee is tasked with reviewing foreign investment transactions in the U.S. and it is currently conducting TikTok’s national security review.

TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.