Corporate stupidity —

A Financial Times journalist writes about discovering she’d been surveilled by TikTok.


TikTok spied on me. Why?

Celina Pereira via Financial Times

One evening in late December last year, I received a cryptic phone call from a PR director at TikTok, the popular social media app. I’d written extensively about the company for the Financial Times, so we’d spoken before. But it was puzzling to hear from her just before the holidays, especially since I wasn’t working on anything related to the company at the time.

The call lasted less than a minute. She wanted me to know, “as a courtesy,” that The New York Times had just published a story I ought to read. Confused by this unusual bespoke news alert, I asked why. But all she said was that it concerned an inquiry at ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, and that I should call her back once I’d read it.

The story claimed ByteDance employees accessed two reporters’ data through their TikTok accounts. Personal information, including their physical locations, had been used as part of an attempt to find the writers’ sources, after a series of damaging stories about ByteDance. According to the report, two employees in China and two in the US left the company following an internal investigation. In a staff memo, ByteDance’s chief executive lamented the incident as the “misconduct of a few individuals.”

When I phoned the PR director back, she confirmed I was one of the journalists who had been surveilled. I put down my phone and wondered what it meant that a company I reported on had gone to such lengths to restrict my ability to do so. Over the following months, the episode became just one in a long series of scandals and crises that call into question what TikTok really is and whether the company has the world-dominating future that once seemed inevitable.

During the Internet era that roughly began with the dominance of Google Search, most of us have implicitly traded access to our data in exchange for often marginal digital conveniences. By the time ByteDance was founded in Beijing in 2012, Google had been reading our emails over our shoulders, Amazon had been watching us shop, and Twitter and Facebook had been mediating our messages to friends and foes for years. Indeed, Zhang Yiming, the millennial software engineer who set up ByteDance, modeled himself and aspects of his new company on Silicon Valley. Zhang, who briefly worked for Microsoft before going out on his own, was once fond of quoting Steve Jobs and Jack Welch.

His first hit app, an endlessly scrolling news site called Toutiao (Today’s Headlines), built the foundations for the company’s future growth. Existing platforms such as Facebook and Instagram relied on users manually following friends, celebrities, and companies, whose posts then made up the content they saw on their feeds. Toutiao wasn’t interested in who its users knew, just what they clicked on, which articles they read the whole way through, and which ones they commented on. ByteDance’s underlying technology began generating a profile of what each reader liked and refined that picture every time they opened the app. Within four months of Toutiao’s launch in 2012, it had a million users, and ByteDance had a blueprint for a new kind of non-social social network.

In 2016, ByteDance released Douyin, an app for watching short videos in China. It quickly grew to have more than 100 million users and was launched internationally with a new name: TikTok. The app only took off after ByteDance merged it with another Chinese social site, Musical.ly, which it acquired for $1B in 2017. TikTok’s ever-learning algorithm, which collected location and information on the content of videos (as well as biometric data such as faceprints and voice recognition in the US) was combined with Musical.ly’s video editing tools, which allowed users to easily replicate and repost clips.

All of it went into a product perfectly suited for a generation raised on smartphones. (Sixty percent of users are between 16 and 24 years old, but many are younger.) TikTok’s content is more minutely tailored than other platforms’, meaning each user can feel like they’re finding their own little corner of the site in the form of their “For You” page. My 17-year-old sister has BookTok; I get cooking videos, Marie Kondo-style organization tips, and cats. (When I originally set up my TikTok account to test features on the app I did it in the guise of my fluffy black and white cat, named Buffy after the Vampire Slayer. Technically, it was Buffy’s account that TikTok employees accessed on my phone.)

Almost overnight, TikTok became one of the fastest growing companies in an industry famous for growing fast. It has been downloaded more than three billion times. In 2021, TikTok had more site visits than Google and more watch minutes in the US than YouTube. Globally, users spend 52 minutes per day on TikTok, almost double the time spent per day on Instagram. That made TikTok China’s first app to break out on a truly global scale.

It also made it a target for Beijing’s recent crackdown on Big Tech. In 2018, one of ByteDance’s other apps was accused of promoting immoral content by state media. When it was eventually pulled down, Zhang wrote a public letter of apology, pledging greater censorship of ByteDance content. Along with other prominent tech founders, Zhang stood down as chairman in 2021. (He retains a 20 percent stake in ByteDance, with a separate class of shares that give him additional voting rights and veto powers.)

China possesses considerable power over technology companies. It controls export of ByteDance algorithms, including TikTok’s, and can mandate that companies disclose user data to the state. TikTok has said it has never given data to the Chinese government and wouldn’t do so if it was asked.

Yet, around the world and particularly in the US, TikTok’s biggest market, there is alarm about the security of this data. “This is a tool that is ultimately within the control of the Chinese government… to me, it screams out with national security concerns,” was the assessment of FBI director Christopher Wray earlier this year. In October 2022, Forbes journalist Emily Baker-White reported that a China-based team at ByteDance “planned to use the TikTok app” to pinpoint the precise locations of “specific US citizens.” After the story was published, the company posted a tweet that read: “TikTok has never been used to ‘target’ any members of the US government, activists, public figures or journalists.” As The New York Times made clear a couple of months later, employees at TikTok had already accessed Baker-White’s phone, as well as my own.

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