RSF says ByteDance must provide clear, detailed explanations about its spying on journalists

Three weeks after it was revealed that journalists were spied on by employees of ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns and operates the social media app TikTok, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is still not satisfied with the company’s response. RSF calls on ByteDance to provide a clear and detailed public explanation of this extremely troubling behaviour.

ByteDance has yet to offer anything but the briefest account of the cases of surveillance of journalists by some of its employees, which were revealed at the end of December by the UK’s Financial Times newspaper and the US business magazine Forbes.

When contacted by RSF, TikTok said: “The misconduct of certain persons, who are no longer ByteDance employees, was a gross abuse of their authority to gain access to user data.” The company tried to be reassuring by saying it takes “data security very seriously” and that it is committed to improving its data access protocols, which have already been “considerably improved and reinforced since this incident.” But it has provided no further details and no evidence that its security has in fact been stepped up.

“Extremely serious spying on journalists has been admitted by ByteDance, which claims to have taken measures but has said nothing specific,” said Vincent Berthier, the head of RSF’s Tech Desk. “Admitting a wrong is not enough to correct it. ByteDance must tell us exactly what its internal investigation discovered about what went awry. And it must provide details about the measures taken to fix this problem for good.”

It had been expected that TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s visit last week to Europe, where he was due to meet with Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission executive vice-president responsible for media and telecommunications, and Vera Jourova, the vice-president for values and transparency, would be the occasion for clearer explanations, and a firm stance from European commissioners who are committed to data protection.

But this did not happen. There was no big announcement and nothing was done to regain the trust of journalists using the platform.

At least four journalists, including Cristina Criddle of the Financial Times and three former BuzzFeed tech reporters – Emily Baker-White, Katharine Schwab and Richard Nieva – were spied on by ByteDance employees, who tracked their locations using their IP addresses, to which they had access.


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Updated on 19.01.2023