What was just a rumor has been confirmed: employees of ByteDance, the China-based company that owns TikTok and its Chinese counterpart Douyin, accessed data from TikTok to track a Financial Times reporter and a former BuzzFeed reporter in a bid to identify the source of leaks to the media, ByteDance’s general counsel Erich Andersen admitted in an email seen by Agence France Presse (AFP) on December 23, 2022.
According to Andersen, the staffers had obtained the IP addresses of the journalists in a bid to determine whether they were in the same location as ByteDance colleagues suspected of disclosing confidential information.
The plan failed, however, partly because the IP addresses only revealed approximate location data.
Andersen added that ByteDance condemned the “misguided initiative that seriously violated the company’s code of conduct” and that none of the employees found to have been involved remained employed by the company. The Guardian reported that a person briefed on the matter said four ByteDance employees involved in the incident were fired, including two in China and two in the United States.
TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew said in a separate email to employees seen by Reuters that such “misconduct is not at all representative of what I know our company’s principles to be.”
He said the company “will continue to enhance these access protocols, which have already been significantly improved and hardened since this initiative took place.”
The Financial Times said that “spying on reporters, interfering with their work or intimidating their sources is completely unacceptable. We’ll be investigating this story more fully before deciding our formal response.”
BuzzFeed News spokesperson Lizzie Grams said the company was deeply disturbed by the report, saying it showed “a blatant disregard for the privacy and rights of journalists as well as TikTok users.”
Forbes reported that ByteDance had tracked several of its journalists, including some who formerly worked at BuzzFeed “as part of a covert surveillance campaign” to discover the source of leaks. Randall Lane, the chief content officer of Forbes, called it “a direct assault on the idea of a free press and its critical role in a functioning democracy.”
This comes after TikTok had gone to great lengths to convince customers and governments of major markets like the United States that users’ data privacy is protected and that it poses no threat to national security.
In the US, the House of Representatives could soon adopt a law prohibiting the use of TikTok on the professional phones of civil servants, a move that would follow bans in around 20 US states.