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TikTok Accessed U.S. User Data in China, Leaked Recordings Reveal

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TikTok employees in China have repeatedly had access to nonpublic data pertaining to U.S.-based users — reports BuzzFeed News.

The information comes from leaked recordings of more than 80 internal TikTok meetings that were reviewed by the publication.

“Everything is seen in China,”  said one employee in TikTok’s Trust and Safety department during a September 2021 meeting. In another meeting the same month, one director referred to a Beijing-based engineer at the company as a “Master Admin” who “has access to everything.”

The leaked audio directly conflicts with previous assurances from TikTok owner ByteDance that U.S. users’ data is stored in the country and cannot be accessed from China. In fact, one TikTok executive testified during an October 2021 Senate hearing that a “world-renowned, US-based security team” controls who gets to access this data.

According to Buzzfeed News, 14 statements from nine different members of TikTok staff in the recordings indicate China-based engineers had access to U.S. data between September 2021 and January 2022, at the very least.

Furthermore, nine statements from eight different employees included in the tapes detail instances where U.S.-based employees asked staff in China for help in determining how U.S. user data was flowing. TikTok workers in the U.S. did not have permission to access the data on their own, or even know how to do so.

The leaked tapes demonstrate the challenges TikTok has faced in trying to separate its U.S. operations from its home base in China. Back in 2020, then-U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to ban TikTok in the country over data privacy concerns.

However, the recordings also indicate that the company may have materially misled lawmakers, users, and the public by under-reporting the frequency and gravity of U.S.-based users’ data being accessed by employees outside the country.

“We know we’re among the most scrutinized platforms from a security standpoint, and we aim to remove any doubt about the security of US user data,” TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan previously said in a statement following concerns about data access.

“That’s why we hire experts in their fields, continually work to validate our security standards, and bring in reputable, independent third parties to test our defenses.”

TikTok is gaining unprecedented traction as a video-first social media platform. Earlier this year, the social network increased video upload durations to 10 minutes, bringing YouTube into its crosshairs. The app has become so popular that Facebook is working on a massive TikTok-inspired redesign for its own platform.

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