The video platform TikTok by the Chinese owner company ByteDance is especially popular with young people. According to TikTok, the app is used by tens of millions of people in the US, so there are hundreds of millions of users worldwide. However, the app is regularly criticized: Videos criticizing the Chinese leadership, for example, are said to have been censored.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also accused TikTok of passing on data generated by the use of the app to the Communist leadership in Beijing. There are no evidence at this time. US President Donald Trump also put pressure on China’s TikTok operators. He issued an executive order and demanded the sale of the video platform by September 20. The US company Microsoft is considered to be the most promising buyer.
If the video platform is not sold within this period, all transactions and transactions with TikTok and ByteDance will be prohibited in the USA. The rationale for the measures: The app collects huge amounts of user data, enables the Chinese Communist Party to spy on US citizens, and is therefore a threat to national security.
Active surveillance during George Floyd protests
Now leaked police documents show that TikTok shares a lot of user data with U.S. law enforcement agencies. This is reported by the news website “The Intercept”. The data was collected as part of the so-called “BlueLeaks” and published by the Collective Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDoSecrets). They comprise more than a million files of the U.S. government, most of which concern U.S. police forces.
The data shows, among other things, that TikTok has passed on information to U.S. law enforcement agencies in dozens of cases. They also show that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Homeland Security actively monitored TikTok for signs of unrest during the George Floyd protests. They also show that two representatives with bytedance.com email addresses – addresses of the Chinese owner group of TikTok – have registered on the website of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC). The NCRIC is a government program for public safety at the federal, state and local levels. It serves as a security hub “connected to the National Network of Fusion Centres and our nation’s high-intensity drug trafficking areas.”
U.S. authorities collect mainly from U.S. companies
Experts familiar with law enforcement requests tell The Intercept that the amount of data collected by TikTok and handed over to Us authorities is not much greater than that regularly transmitted by companies such as Amazon, Facebook or Google. According to The Intercept, this is partly due to the fact that “US technology companies collect and hand over a lot of information.”
For example, the number of requests for information about users that TikTok claims to receive from US authorities is significantly lower than the number of requests the US tech giants receive from US authorities – “probably because the police are more accustomed to using data from US companies in investigations,” the Intercept suspects.
TikTok summarizes his requests from law enforcement in a six-monthly transparency report. It states that the company received 100 requests for 107 accounts in the last half of 2019. In 82 percent of cases, information was handed over to US authorities. Facebook, on the other hand, claims to have received a whopping 51,121 requests over the same period and in 88 percent of cases at least shared some data.
Despite these unequal figures, US authorities have an interest in the data collected by foreign technology companies. For example, the BlueLeaks data also contained a “Resource Guide for Law Enforcement Investigations”: The document contains police information on how to get to records of the platform Musical.ly purchased by ByteDance and then merged with TikTok.
TikTok invokes data protection
The BlueLeaks documents show that TikTok has handed over IP addresses, information about the devices used to register accounts, mobile phone numbers, and uniquely assigned ID’s tied to platforms such as Instagram, Facebook or Google.
It is unclear whether these data releases were made in response to search warrants, subpoenas, or other requests. The only thing that is clear is that accounts with a wide reach as well as data from people who publish only for their friends have been passed on.
TikTok did not disclose details to The Intercept, citing users' privacy. “We are committed to respecting the privacy and rights of our users when we comply with requests from law enforcement agencies,” TikTok spokesman Jamie Favazza told The Intercept. “We carefully review valid requests from law enforcement agencies and request appropriate legal documents.”
Tool for authorities
The BlueLeaks documents also show that FEDERAL investigators and police are increasingly viewing the app as a useful tool. In the early days of the protests following the death of George Floyd, law enforcement agencies used TikTok, along with Facebook, Twitter, and other applications, to track protests and dissent.
A FBI report dated June 2, titled “Civil Unrest May 2020 Situation Report,” claimed that TikTok was one of the apps used to promote violence: “National reports show that individuals are using traditional social media platforms and encrypted messaging applications (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Telegram, Topbuzz, Snapchat, Wickr) to discuss potential violence.”
Three days later, another FBI message warned: “An identified user posted a video on TikTok showing what tab slack you need to pull to quickly remove the military’s body armor.” The video was titled with the words: “Make what you want with this information.”
How a 19-year-old became a threat
Another satirical TikTok video even got its own intelligence report. A 19-year-old TikTok user posted a video in which he picked up a Twitter comment from a comedian. After the National Guard was stationed in Minneapolis, comedian Jaboukie Young-White tweeted, “Thank God they bring the army with them.” And: “It would break my heart if someone put a tank out of action by filling water balloons with sticky liquids (especially a kind of sugar/milk/syrup combination) into a glass vessel and throwing it at the windshield.
Both the video and the corresponding tweets were quoted in the intelligence report without any information from sources. The title of the intelligence report: “Social Media Video provides tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPS) on how to disrupt the U.S. National Guard in riots.” So the 19-year-old TikTok user and his satirical video were considered an immediate threat to the U.S. secret service.
Enhanced cooperation with US authorities
TikTok has been trying for a long time to distance himself from its Chinese origins. For example, the company hired a former Disney executive as CEO, hired lobbyists with ties to the Trump campaign, and promised to create 10,000 jobs in the United States. “The Intercept” sees part of this disengagement from China in the expansion of cooperation with the US authorities. For example, TikTok recently sought a law enforcement cooperation specialist and is currently working as a global project manager for law enforcement projects. The team that reviews law enforcement requests is based not in China, but in Los Angeles.
Criticism of TikTok is appropriate
The Chinese state has invested considerable resources in the use of artificial intelligence to monitor public opinion, and ByteDance has been involved in these efforts. For example, the company recently established a joint venture with a Chinese state-owned media group, leaving open the possibility that some of its technology could be used for propaganda purposes.
Furthermore, internal documents available to “The Intercept” show that TikTok instructed moderators to suppress posts – if their creator or creator was considered poor, ugly, or disabled.