The recordings, which were reviewed by BuzzFeed News, contain 14 statements from nine different TikTok employees indicating that engineers in China had access to US data between September 2021 and January 2022, at the very least. Despite a TikTok executive’s sworn testimony in an October 2021 Senate hearing that a “world-renowned, US-based security team” decides who gets access to this data, nine statements by eight different employees describe situations where US employees had to turn to their colleagues in China to determine how US user data was flowing. US staff did not have permission or knowledge of how to access the data on their own, according to the tapes.
“Everything is seen in China,” said a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department in a September 2021 meeting. In another September meeting, a director referred to one Beijing-based engineer as a “Master Admin” who “has access to everything.” (While many employees introduced themselves by name and title in the recordings, BuzzFeed News is not naming anyone to protect their privacy.)
The recordings range from small-group meetings with company leaders and consultants to policy all-hands presentations and are corroborated by screenshots and other documents, providing a vast amount of evidence to corroborate prior reports of China-based employees accessing US user data. Their contents show that data was accessed far more frequently and recently than previously reported, painting a rich picture of the challenges the world’s most popular social media app has faced in attempting to disentangle its US operations from those of its parent company in Beijing. Ultimately, the tapes suggest that the company may have misled lawmakers, its users, and the public by downplaying that data stored in the US could still be accessed by employees in China.