TikTok’s Surveillance Saga: The Story of Buffy the Cat and ByteDance’s Missteps
In an unsettling turn of events, a group of ByteDance employees in the US and China tracked the TikTok account of a cat named Buffy, belonging to Financial Times reporter Cristina Criddle. With 170 followers and 20 posts at the time, the employees used the account to identify the reporter’s IP address. Sadly, this invasion of privacy led Criddle to stop creating content for Buffy’s account.
TikTok’s Botched Attempt to Uncover a Company Leaker
Criddle’s revelation came in an article where she detailed how TikTok admitted to tracking her location in a failed attempt to identify a leaker within the company. According to Criddle, she received a cryptic phone call from TikTok’s PR director in December, who informed her that she was one of two journalists being monitored by four employees. The surveillance team attempted to connect the journalists’ location data with ByteDance employees who could be potential leakers. Unfortunately for them, their efforts were unsuccessful.
And of course, a picture of Buffy, who sadly is no longer making content pic.twitter.com/7c7eAmVCU4
— Cristina Criddle (@CristinaCriddle) May 5, 2023
The Chilling Impact of TikTok’s Surveillance on the Reporter
Criddle described the experience as “chilling and horrible” and a violation of her privacy. Despite the absence of her name and occupation in the account bio, ByteDance employees still managed to track her. As a result, Criddle now uses an old device as a “dummy phone” for accessing the app and has cut back on her social media usage across various platforms. The anxiety caused by the surveillance still affects her, with Criddle admitting she has had trouble sleeping and felt on edge when meeting new sources.
The Aftermath: ByteDance’s Missteps and Growing Criticism
TikTok’s surveillance debacle not only failed to uncover the leaker but also led to a public relations nightmare for ByteDance. In response, the company fired all four employees involved and restructured its internal audit team. However, this incident has only fueled existing concerns about Chinese employees accessing US user data, with lawmakers from both parties questioning TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew during a combative hearing in March. The Department of Justice has also launched an investigation into the company, and several bills are currently under consideration in Congress that could lead to restrictions on TikTok in the US.