Employees with the Chinese parent company of video-sharing platform TikTok inappropriately gained access to the user data of American citizens, according to internal emails reviewed by The New York Times.
ByteDance explained in the emails that an internal investigation found the employees gained access to the data of two U.S. journalists and people associated with them over the summer.
The employees, who were part of a monitoring program at the company, were probing the journalists, one now at Forbes and the other at the Financial Times, to find the sources of suspected leaks, according to The Times.
Forbes reported on Thursday that two additional journalists with the company were tracked by ByteDance employees.
All three Forbes journalists were formerly at BuzzFeed News, which reported in June that ByteDance has repeatedly accessed the user data of American citizens.
While the effort to find the source of the leaks failed, the employees gained access to data from at least two reporters and a few other users connected to them through their TikTok accounts.
All four ByteDance employees – two of whom were based in the U.S. and the other two based in China — were fired and the internal audit and risk team has been restructured, according to The Times. Access to U.S. user data was removed from the department.
ByteDance’s general counsel announced the findings of the investigation, which was conducted by an outside law firm, according to The Times.
ByteDance’s chief executive, Rubo Liang, said in an email to employees reviewed by The Times that he was “deeply disappointed” in the findings.
“The public trust that we have spent huge efforts building is going to be significantly undermined by the misconduct of a few individuals,” Liang wrote.
The internal investigation was launched after Forbes reported in October that a ByteDance team planned to monitor the personal location of specific American citizens.
The findings at least partially confirm existing concerns about Chinese-owned ByteDance employees gaining access to the private data of U.S. citizens.
The U.S. government is increasingly worried about the privacy and security of American’s data on TikTok, one of the most popular social media apps in the world, as tensions rise with China.
The ruling communist government in China operates tight control over businesses and companies.
Several states have recently banned TikTok for use on government devices and the $1.7 trillion spending package making its way through Congress includes a federal ban of TikTok on government phones.