- ByteDance allowed a Chinese Communist Party unit to censor content and access data, a new lawsuit alleges.
- The unit, referred to as the “Committee,” even had a “death switch” to turn off certain apps.
- ByteDance built a “backdoor channel” to enable CCP access to US user data, the suit alleges.
An explosive new lawsuit claims TikTok owner ByteDance built a “backdoor channel” in its code that allowed Chinese Communist Party members access to user data hosted in the US.
The wrongful termination suit, which was filed on Friday in San Francisco Superior Court by Yintao Yu, alleges ByteDance granted special powers to members of a unit of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, inside the company, referred to as the “Committee.” Yu is a former engineering lead for ByteDance in the US who worked at the company between 2017 and 2018.
Yu was terminated from ByteDance in November 2018, shortly after TikTok was merged with the lip-syncing app Musical.ly. TikTok had only 11 million monthly active users in the US in January of that year versus the more than 150 million users the company said it has today.
The suit says the CCP “Committee,” which did not work for ByteDance, could monitor its business activities, demote content the unit viewed as unfavorable to China’s interests, and even use a “death switch” to turn off Chinese versions of its apps.
The complaint alleges the “Committee continued to have access” to US user data even after ByteDance walled off access for individual engineers in China.
Specifically, the suit says Yu “saw the backdoor channel in the code, which allows certain high level persons to access user data, no matter where the data is located, even if hosted by a U.S. company with servers located in the U.S. Chinese law requires the company to grant access to user data to the Chinese government.”
The complaint alleges ByteDance “was aware that if the Chinese government’s backdoor was removed from the international/U.S. version of the app, the Chinese government would, it feared, ban the company’s valuable Chinese-version apps.”
TikTok has previously said it doesn’t share information with the Chinese government, that US user data is stored in the US and Singapore, and that its content moderation is led by a US-based team that “operates independently from China.”
Since Yu’s time at the company, which ended in late 2018, TikTok has invested heavily in new ways to guard US user data, including a $1.5 billion data sovereignty initiative called Project Texas in partnership with Oracle.
The suit alleges that Yu was fired from the company for his “observation and reporting of illegal conduct.” The filing was first reported on by The New York Times.
“Mr. Yu observed a culture of lawlessness within the company,” the suit says. “This ByteDance culture focused on growth at all costs. The attitude was to violate the law first, continue to grow, and pay fines later.”
The complaint also claims the internal CCP group was tasked with helping ByteDance stick to “core Communist values,” at times blocking content around events like the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
TikTok has been under intense scrutiny in Washington for months as politicians have debated whether its owner could be compelled to give the Chinese government access to US user data via its National Intelligence Law.
Members of Congress from both parties have proposed bills that would grant the White House powers to ban TikTok or other apps with ties to China. Montana’s state legislature passed legislation in April to ban TikTok within state borders.
ByteDance and TikTok did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.