A TikTok Whistleblower Came Forward. Do His Claims Add Up?

Many of his allegations are improbable, but he still may have shaped how TikTok is perceived in Washington.

I want to quickly say welcome and thank you to all the new subscribers (!!!) who signed up for this newsletter after it was featured over on Garbage Day. And thank you to author Ryan Broderick for picking up my story last week about Donghua Jinlong high-grade glycine. I have some related stuff to share, but first, let’s talk about TikTok.

TikTok Whistleblower Revealed

The US Senate is mulling whether to pass legislation that would force TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, to sell the app or else face it being blocked in the United States. The bill was already approved by the House, and President Biden said he would sign it into law. 

I’ve lost count of how many times lawmakers have tried to ban TikTok over the last four years, but I think it’s safe to say this is the most serious attempt thus far. Banning a platform used by around 170 million Americans would be a drastic measure, and voters deserve to know how their elected representatives concluded that it was a necessary one. However, much of the evidence lawmakers have seen about TikTok and why the Chinese-owned app supposedly poses an urgent threat to national security remains classified.

But one former TikTok employee turned whistleblower, who claims to have driven key news reporting and congressional concerns about the app, has now come forward. I wrote about his story for WIRED:

Zen Goziker worked at TikTok as a risk manager, a role that involved protecting the company from external security and reputational threats. In a wrongful termination lawsuit filed against TikTok's parent company ByteDance in January, he alleges he was fired in February 2022 for refusing “to sign off” on Project Texas, a $1.5 billion program that TikTok designed to assuage US government security concerns by storing American data on servers managed by Oracle.

Goziker worked at TikTok for only six months. He didn’t hold a senior position inside the company. His lawsuit, and a second one he filed in March against several US government agencies, makes a number of improbable claims. He asserts that he was put under 24-hour surveillance by TikTok and the FBI while working remotely in Mexico. He claims that US attorney general Merrick Garland, director of national intelligence Avril Haines, and other top officials “wickedly instigated” his firing. And he states that the FBI helped the CIA share his private information with foreign governments. The suits do not appear to include evidence for any of these claims.

And yet, court records and emails I reviewed suggest that when Goziker raised the alarm about his ex-employer’s links to China, he found a ready audience. Over the last two years, he claims to have met with officials on Capitol Hill, law enforcement agencies, and journalists. 

He alleges that he was the source of an influential Washington Post story published in March last year headlined “A former TikTok employee tells Congress the app is lying about Chinese spying.” And he said he had been in touch with a Forbes journalist who has written a number of influential stories about TikTok’s data security practices and links to ByteDance.

In June of 2022, when the journalist worked at BuzzFeed News, they published an article based on 80 internal meetings at TikTok in which nine different employees reportedly made statements “indicating that engineers in China had access to US data between September 2021 and January 2022.” Goziker asserted to WIRED that he was the source of the recordings. Forbes and the Washington Post said they don’t comment on sourcing.

My goal with this story was to give readers enough information so that they could judge Goziker’s claims for themselves. I wanted to provide a name and backstory for someone who has influenced one of the most controversial tech policy issues in Washington. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the article or anything else you might want to share about TikTok. Get in touch at louisevmatsakis [at] gmail dot com.

Illustration / Eyestetix Studio / Unsplash

The Dildo Factory

I wrote last week about how Chinese factories had accidentally become a meme on TikTok. The most popular is a manufacturer called Donghua Jinlong, which produces “high-quality industrial grade glycine,” a type of nutritional additive. But there are plenty of other kinds of Chinese suppliers on TikTok, including one that apparently produces heavy machinery for making sex dolls and dildos.

When a reader first alerted me to Dongguan Chencheng’s TikTok’s account, I thought it was some kind of elaborate joke or parody. But the company does in fact make things like this $7,000 “Realistic Suction Cup Dildo for Women and Male Artificial Rubber Adult Dildos Single Screw Extruder.”

I highly recommend checking out their content. Like many of the Chinese factories posting on TikTok, Dongguan Chencheng seems to be using some sort of text-to-speech translation software that adds an element of absurdity to their videos.

It’s also genuinely interesting to get a sense of where adult products come from and how they’re produced. When you make a sex doll, for example, the soft rubbery silicone is poured into a custom metal mold and left to cool down. Good to know!

@junchen5973 / TikTok

  • Millions Of Teens Are Using A Homework App From TikTok’s Chinese Parent Company (Forbes) ByteDance used to have a lucrative online education business in China, but in 2021, the government essentially outlawed after-school tutoring, decimating the entire sector overnight. ByteDance now seems to be shifting some of that expertise to other markets like the US, where it released an app called Gauth AI that supposedly helps kids with their homework and connects them to third-party tutors. It’s been downloaded over 10 million times on Android alone, Forbes reported.

  • TikTok Launches New Rewards App to Boost Growth (The Information) TikTok’s growth is stagnating in Europe, so the company is launching a new app codenamed “Coin App” that gives people financial rewards for watching videos. It will be available in Spain and France, and users can redeem the points they earn for gift cards or to send tips to their favorite creators. This is a tactic I’ve seen other Chinese social media platforms use: In 2020, I reported that Kuaishou was paying people in the US small sums to watch videos on an app it launched called Zynn.

  • SHEIN and MercadoLibre are fighting over vendors in Brazil’s largest garment market (Rest of World) One of the most common misunderstandings about SHEIN is people think it’s a brand. It’s actually a marketplace, and while it does compete with Zara and H&M, SHEIN’s most formidable rivals are really tech companies like Amazon. To see the difference, look at what’s happening in Brazil, where SHEIN is going head-to-head against the local e-commerce giant MercadoLibre. The two companies are trying to lure as many local garment sellers to their platforms as possible. “The offers from the two companies are so competitive that some vendors have given up trying to decide between marketplaces and joined both,” Rest of World reported.

  • Super Cute Please Like (n+1) The literary magazine n+1 documented the surreal experience of shopping on SHEIN’s website. Every day, thousands of new items are added, which are sorted into confusing and ever-shifting trends like “Dopamine Dressing,” “RomComCore,” and “Bloke Core.” The piece also traces the history of Zara, something I hadn’t read about in-depth previously. “Zara was a colossal, world-altering success. The retailer’s first international store opened in Portugal in 1988, followed quickly by stores in France and New York,” writes Nicole Lipman. (This piece does at times make the marketplace vs. brand mistake about SHEIN described above.)

  • Chinese Reddit-like Humor Forum Ruozhiba (弱智吧) Unexpectedly Makes AI Smarter (Recode China AI) Tony Peng covered a really interesting experiment in which Chinese AI researchers tried fine-tuning various large language models on different datasets, including from Chinese social media platforms like Zhihu and Xiaohongshu. Surprisingly, they found one of the highest performing data sources was Ruozhiba, which literally translates to “Idiot Sub-forum.” Tony describes the it as a corner of the Chinese internet “filled with ridiculous, pun-filled, logically challenging threads that will twist your brain into a pretzel.”