Leaked audio from internal TikTok meetings show that private user data has been repeatedly accessed from China!
Here is what you need to know…
Privacy Promise By TikTok : Overseas Data Stored In US + Singapore
For many years now, TikTok has repeatedly assured users that all data collected from users outside of China, stays out of China and is thus, not accessible to anyone in China.
To ensure that the Chinese government has no access to the data, one of the measures they took was to store all data collected overseas in servers located in the United States, with backups in Singapore.
We store the information described in the “ What Information We Collect ” section in servers located in the United States and Singapore.
Most people may not realise this, but they also added a caveat right after that, stating that their Corporate Group (in China) may remotely access the data…
When entities in our Corporate Group need information to help us provide the Platform, they remotely access the information pursuant to authorised and secure access controls.
TikTok Leak : China Repeatedly Accessed Private User Data!
Buzzfeed News recently received audio recordings from more than eighty (80) internal TikTok meetings, in which employees admitted that engineers in China accessed private user data.
This was despite a TikTok executive’s sworn testimony at an October 2021 US Senate hearing at the same time period, that a “world-renowned, US-based security team” decides who gets access to the private user data.
Instead, the leaked audio revealed that US staff did not have permission or knowledge of how to access the data. Rather, it was their colleagues in China who determined how and who accessed the private user data.
The leaked tapes ultimately show that TikTok may have misled lawmakers, users, and the public by downplaying the fact that their private data is readily accessible by employees in China, and potentially, the Chinese government.
Everything Is Seen In China
Eight different employees stated in nine statements that they had to refer to their colleagues in China to make those decisions.
“Everything is seen in China“, said a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department in a September 2021 meeting.
In another September 2021 meeting, a TikTok director referred to a Beijing-based engineer as a “Master Admin” who “has access to everything“.
There’s Some Backdoor To Access User Data…
Fourteen of the leaked audio recordings were with, or about, a team of Booz Allen Hamilton consultants that TikTok brought in to investigate how data flows through TikTok and ByteDance’s internal tools.
In September 2021, one Booz Allen Hamilton consultant told colleagues that the tools felt like they had backdoors to access user data :
I feel like with these tools, there’s some backdoor to access user data in almost all of them, which is exhausting.
Oracle Only Providing Storage For Project Texas
TikTok has been working on what they call Project Texas – securely storing overseas data in Oracle cloud servers to comply with CFIUS (Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States).
Project Texas is limited to protecting the private information of US users, like phone numbers and birthdays – details that are not publicly visible, or have been set to private.
Such data will be stored at an Oracle datacenter in Texas – hence the name, and would only be accessible to specific US-based TikTok employees.
However, TikTok’s head of global cyber and data defense made clear that Oracle was only providing the data storage space for Project Texas. Ultimately, TikTok would be setting up the servers, and controlling everything.
It’s almost incorrect to call it Oracle Cloud, because they’re just giving us bare metal, and then we’re building our VMs [virtual machines] on top of it.
Unique IDs Not Protected Information
In one of the leaked audio recordings from a January 2022 meeting, TikTok’s head of product and user operations announced with a laugh that the Unique ID (UID) will not be amongst the protected content under the CFIUS agreement.
The conversation continues to evolve. We recently found out that UIDs are things we can have access to, which changes the game a bit.
Other Data Not Stored On Oracle Servers
The problem with Project Texas is that it only addresses US users… and only a small subset of their data.
Everything else – including private user data from non-US countries – will stay in their US and Singapore servers that remain accessible to ByteDance’s Beijing offices.
Response By TikTok : 100% US Data Traffic Routed To Oracle
TikTok publicly announced on the same day – June 17, 2022, that it changed the “default storage location of US user data“, and that “100% of US user traffic is being routed to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure“.
Although they “expect” to fully pivot to Oracle cloud servers located in the US, they will continue to use their existing US and Singapore servers for backup, and delete US users’ private data over time.
While this may address some of the privacy concerns for US users, it does not address the other privacy concerns revealed in the leaked audio recordings… or the privacy concerns of non-US users.
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Dr. Adrian Wong has been writing about tech and science since 1997, even publishing a book with Prentice Hall called Breaking Through The BIOS Barrier (ISBN 978-0131455368) while in medical school.
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