A former ByteDance executive has declared in a legal filing that members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held ‘superuser’ permission to access American data on TikTok. Here’s the latest.
Yintao Yu served as Head of Engineering for ByteDance in the United States in 2018. He filed the allegations in a wrongful dismissal suit in the San Francisco Superior Court in May 2023. These documents reveal that ByteDance held a ‘superuser‘ credential allowing a “special committee of CCP members stationed at the company to view all data collected by ByteDance, including those of U.S. users.”
This superuser credential acted as a “backdoor to any barrier ByteDance had supposedly installed to protect data from CCP surveillance,” according to the filing. Yu says he saw the CCP utilize its superuser access to track Hong Kong protestors and civil rights activists through monitoring their locations and devices, SIM card identification, IP addresses, network information, and communications on the platform.
Yu’s lawyer, Charles Jung, told BusinessInsider that he chose to raise the allegations after hearing recent Congressional testimony from TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew. In that testimony, Chew denies that Chinese authorities could access large swathes of American data.
TikTok remains under intense U.S. scrutiny over its data handling. But both the U.S. military and government believe the app presents a national security risk. They have banned the app on government devices—and FBI Christopher Wray has issued warnings concerning CCP access to data and how TikTok algorithms can be manipulated.
TikTok has over 150 million monthly active users in the United States alone. Across the world, that number skyrockets to over one billion. What does superuser access mean and why is that concerning? A superuser is the same as an administrator. It means the account can access every part of the network—regardless of safeguards set up to sandbox other accounts. Superuser access means the posturing of TikTok’s ‘Project Texas‘ was just an illusion of security designed to distract like smoke and mirrors in a magic trick.