TikTok harvested and sent data to China, lawsuit claims

DECEMBER 04, 2019 06:09 JST

TikTok locked Feroza Aziz out of her account after the New Jersey teenager discussed Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang in a video masqueraded as a makeup tutorial. (Nikkei collage)

NEW YORK — American users of the short-video app TikTok are coming forward with allegations of data and censorship misconduct, despite the Chinese social-media platform’s recent efforts to refute such claims as it faces national-security probes in Washington.

A newly surfaced consumer class action, filed last Wednesday in California, accuses TikTok, which is owned and operated by Beijing-based ByteDance, of harvesting user data without notice or consent and sending that data to China.

Also last week, a New Jersey teenager was locked out of her TikTok account after she posted a video spreading awareness of Beijing’s mass detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang. She had masqueraded the clip as a makeup tutorial, talking about eye lashes at the beginning. TikTok took down the video after it went viral, later claiming it removed it by mistake.

The class-action complaint, filed by Misty Hong, a college student in Palo Alto, California, alleged that TikTok “includes Chinese surveillance software” and that user data was transferred to servers in China, including those run by Tencent Holdings and Alibaba Group Holding, as recently as April 2019, without notice or consent.

“TikTok clandestinely has vacuumed up and transferred to servers in China vast quantities of private and personally-identifiable user data that can be employed to identify, profile and track the location and activities of users in the United States now and in the future,” the complaint said, concluding that “TikTok’s lighthearted fun comes at a heavy cost.”

These accusations further add to the legal and political pressure TikTok faces in the U.S. Parent ByteDance reportedly faces an investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States about its 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly, a social media startup that it later rebranded as TikTok. CFIUS could force ByteDance to divest TikTok’s U.S. operations if it found the transaction to pose a national-security threat.

Increasing skepticism of TikTok from both lawmakers and the American public suggest that TikTok — once seen as a social-media upstart taking on the likes of Facebook and Twitter with its quirky and entertaining short-video format — now faces a rite of passage that is both reminiscent of the privacy challenges plaguing American tech giants and the national-security scrutiny often associated with such Chinese companies as Huawei Technologies.

TikTok has said in recent weeks that it stores its U.S. user data within the country and does not censor political content in line with Beijing’s instructions. The company also said the account of the New Jersey teenager, Feroza Aziz, was suspended because of an earlier video in which Osama bin Laden made an appearance and that “no China-related content was moderated on this account.”

TikTok did not comment on the class action suit when requested.

Musical.ly founder Alex Zhu, who now heads TikTok, reassured in an interview with the New York Times that the app would not hand over data to Beijing even if Chinese President Xi Jinping personally made the ask. It was also reported that ByteDance was considering moves to distance the TikTok brand from China.

TikTok and its Chinese version Douyin have garnered over 1.5 billion downloads worldwide, most of which occurred in the past year. Japan’s SoftBank Group is an investor in ByteDance, which is valued at $75 billion.

Critics of the app come from across party lines, including Democrat and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican hawk Marco Rubio. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, which has come to see TikTok as a formidable competitor, has also recently fired shots at TikTok and Chinese social-media platforms in general.

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