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ByteDance employees spied on U.S. journalists, audit finds

An internal investigation at TikTok's parent company ByteDance has revealed that employees spied on at least two U.S. journalists. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
An internal investigation at TikTok's parent company ByteDance has revealed that employees spied on at least two U.S. journalists. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI

Dec. 23 (UPI) -- An internal audit by TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, revealed that employees tracked at least two journalists who were writing about the social media platform, according to an internal email viewed by Forbes, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The Bytedance employees accessed IP addresses and locations of the journalists to determine if they were in close proximity to ByteDance employees suspected of leaking information to the press.

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The two journalists whose surveillance was exposed by the internal audit worked for Buzzfeed and the Financial Times.

However, Forbes said that three of its journalists, Katharine Schwab, Richard Nieva and Emily Baker-White, all of whom worked for Buzzfeed earlier this year, had been tracked.

The head of audit and risk control at ByteDance, Song Ye, has left the company. and three employees, including TikTok's head of internal audit, Chris Lepitak, have been fired in connection to the audit.

In June, Buzzfeed reported that ByteDance employees in China had repeatedly accessed data from U.S. users.

"Several weeks ago, there was a news report alleging that employees of the company's Internal Audit team may have attempted to inappropriately access users' location data. Even though many of the claims in the article were speculative, our Global Legal Compliance team began an immediate investigation," TikTok general counsel Erich Andersen said in an internal email Thursday.

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"We have since learned that a misguided plan was developed and carried out by a few individuals within the Internal Audit department this past summer in the context of investigating significant leaks of confidential company information by employees to media," Andersen said.

While Bytedance has long been accused of systematic surveillance, and was caught placing pro-Chinese government propaganda on its now defunct Topbuzz app, the company is blaming the surveillance revelations on "a few individuals."

"The public trust that we have spent huge efforts building is going to be significantly undermined by the misconduct of a few individuals," ByteDance CEO Rubo Liang said in an email to employees.

"We are taking immediate actions to assuage and address the situation. But more importantly, we need to deeply reflect on our actions and think about how we can prevent similar incidents from happening again."

TikTok CEO Shou Chew blamed the surveillance on "the poorly conceived acts of a few people," in an internal email.

In October, Forbes reported that Bytedance was collecting data to track the location of specific people in the United States.

While TikTok denied the allegation, the report prompted ByteDance to hire an outside law firm to conduct the internal investigation that confirmed BytedDance employees had conducted surveillance on people in the country.

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In November, TikTok updated its terms of service to make it clear that employees in China would have access to European users data.

TikTok has been forbidden on government phones in 14 states and lawmakers are considering actions to forbid the platform outright.

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