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TikTok accused of covert plot to track specific US citizens' every move

China-owned boredom-killing biz issues precision-engineered denial

TikTok has been accused of preparing to keep covert tabs on the physical whereabouts of certain US citizens using its app.

The viral video giant, ultimately owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, has long been a concern for privacy watchdogs in America and elsewhere over concerns it could be used to spy on the West. Now, it's claimed steps were underway to track selected targets' every move.

According to Forbes this week, ByteDance has an Internal Audit and Risk Control department that typically uses location data from the app to monitor and investigate current and former employees suspected of wrongdoing. On at least two occasions, however, this department "planned to collect TikTok data about the location of a US citizen who had never had an employment relationship with the company," it was reported.

That is to say: it's claimed Internal Audit team were't just going to keep tabs on staff, they intended to track people outside the company. Beyond those basics, Forbes said it was "not disclosing the nature and purpose of the planned surveillance referenced in the materials in order to protect sources."

Leaked documents apparently detail these plans and efforts by TikTok's audit staff to use the mobile app to record the location of selected users so that their activities could be surveilled. It is reported that ByteDance had no intention to use this data for ad targeting or any other purpose it previously claimed such tracking code could be used for.

We could speculate the audit team intended to monitor the whereabouts of non-employees suspected of colluding or conspiring with past and current TikTok staff. There are other scenarios, too. And sure, yes, US Big Tech has also tracked specific users in the past: exhibit A, Uber's Greyball.

TikTok was already in hot water for its handling and privacy of user data. Earlier this year, it confirmed some of this information could be viewed by some ByteDance employees in China. That fueled ongoing fears that Beijing was using TikTok as a window deep into the personal lives of millions of Western netizens – including children – and could potentially use the software to blanket spy on American citizens and their devices.

In the aftermath of that admission, TikTok launched Project Texas, which ByteDance said would limit access to US user data to "authorized personnel, pursuant to protocols being developed with the US government." As part of that, TikTok announced its intention to move its US data to Oracle Cloud servers in the United States, keeping the info out of the direct reach of the Middle Kingdom. That move was never completed, however.

TikTok is still locked in negotiations with the US government over national security concerns regarding China's access to the app's American user data and devices. Uncle Sam wants TikTok to make certain changes – such as that shift of account data to US soil out of China's grasp, and changes to TikTok's governance. This week's news could derail those discussions.

TikTok responds

An official TikTok Twitter account quickly shot back at the allegations, claiming the reporting lacked "both rigor and journalistic integrity." 

According to TikTok, it has never surveilled members of the US government, activists, public figures, nor journalists, which is a very specific list – and Forbes didn't state the occupation of the people TikTok apparently planned to keep tabs on. So TikTok could be telling the truth and Forbes could still be correct.

TikTok also said the audit team has policies and processes it has to follow to acquire data similar to other companies "across our industry," and that any use of audit resources as Forbes alleged "would be grounds for immediate dismissal." It said it doesn't collect precise GPS data.

Forbes reporter Emily Baker-White, who wrote the story, responded to TikTok, pointing out a few ways the company showed its hand in its tweeted rebuttal. Baker-White makes several points, but to summarize: TikTok's statement was very carefully worded, and doesn't specifically shoot down what was reported, she said.

What comes next is anyone's guess, and may hinge on whether or not the US government gets a copy of the leaked documents. We've reached out to the Treasury Department, which is in negotiations with the biz, for comment. ®

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