Despite initial claims to the contrary, ByteDance has admitted to using TikTok to monitor Forbes journalists, including tracking their locations.
Forbes broke a story in October that accused TikTok and ByteDance of planning to surveil specific Americans using the TikTok app. The two companies vehemently denied the allegations, even saying, “Forbes’ reporting about TikTok continues to lack both rigor and journalistic integrity.”
As it turns out, however, Forbes was right, and ByteDance has admitted the outlet’s report was correct. ByteDance used TikTok to track multiple Forbes journalists in an effort to track down leaks that served as the basis of multiple stories about the company’s close ties to China.
The surveillance even included using TikTok to track the journalists’ IP addresses and user data in an effort to determine if they had been in the vicinity of any ByteDance employees.
ByteDance has lost a number of executives responsible for the surveillance, including Chris Lepitak, its chief internal auditor and the man who led the surveillance team. Song Ye, the executive Lepitak reported to and who reported directly to CEO Rubo Liang, has resigned.
“I was deeply disappointed when I was notified of the situation… and I’m sure you feel the same,” Liang wrote in an internal email shared with Forbes. “The public trust that we have spent huge efforts building is going to be significantly undermined by the misconduct of a few individuals. … I believe this situation will serve as a lesson to us all.”
“It is standard practice for companies to have an internal audit group authorized to investigate code of conduct violations,” TikTok General Counsel Erich Andersen wrote in a second email. “However, in this case individuals misused their authority to obtain access to TikTok user data.”
Forbes minced no words in calling out ByteDance’s actions as an assault on a free press.
“This is a direct assault on the idea of a free press and its critical role in a functioning democracy,” says Randall Lane, the chief content officer of Forbes. “We await a direct response from ByteDance, as this raises fundamental questions about what they are doing with the information they compile from TikTok users.”
For its part, TikTok is clearly trying to distance itself from the situation and blame the whole fiasco.
“The misconduct of certain individuals, who are no longer employed at ByteDance, was an egregious misuse of their authority to obtain access to user data,” said TikTok spokesperson Hilary McQuaid. “This misbehavior is unacceptable, and not in line with our efforts across TikTok to earn the trust of our users.”
TikTok is under well-deserved fire, with multiple states banning the app from state-owned devices and Congress passing a bill that would ban it from government devices. This latest report is only going to add fuel to the fire, and will likely result in renewed calls for an all-out ban on the app.