Tiktok owner Bytedance's AI research head 'leaving company' amid US privacy spat

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·2 min read
Un hombre abre la aplicación de la red social TikTok en su celular en Islamabad, Pakistán, el martes 21 de julio de 2020. (AP Foto/Anjum Naveed)
TikTok owner ByteDance has seen its AI chief leave the company. Photo: Anjum Naveed/AP

TikTok owner ByteDance’s head of artificial intelligence (AI) research is reported to be leaving the company.

Ma Wei-Ying joined ByteDance to lead the social media app’s AI laboratory in Beijing as a vice-president in 2017. According to the company, the lab is “directly responsible for critical products and services,” and works on continuously developing AI models, algorithms and innovative technologies key to ByteDance’s platforms.

A spokesperson for ByteDance told Reuters: “We are extremely grateful to Wei-Ying for his important contribution to ByteDance.”

Wei-Ying is said to be due to leave at the end of the month, according to sources quoted by Reuters and The Information. Ma did not immediately respond to a Reuters request to comment.

The reasons for his departure are not clear, but it comes amid privacy and security fears that have increased scrutiny of ByteDance as TikTok’s popularity has soared in recent years.

READ MORE: TikTok to leave Hong Kong within days as fears over China security law grow

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said earlier this month that president Donald Trump’s administration was considering a ban on Chinese social media apps, amid heightened tensions with China’s government.

A bill that would ban US federal government employees from using TikTok on work devices was passed by a US Senate committee last week. Some Conservative MPs in Britain have also called for a ban, and India has already banned TikTok and other Chinese apps.

There are fears over whether China’s communist regime could force the platform to hand over data on users. But the company has hit back at the claims, saying users’ privacy is its highest priority.

TikTok’s head of public policy for Europe Theo Bertram told BBC Radio 4 last week there was “zero truth” to allegations the Chinese state had access to users’ data.

He said the company would turn down any such request for data, and said it was managed in a way that gave protection from the Chinese government.

He claimed TikTok had been “kicked around as a political football,” adding: “The suggestion that we are, in any way, under the thumb of the Chinese government is completely and utterly false.”

ByteDance is reported to have halted talks with the UK government over making London its HQ for its business outside China earlier this month. Executives are said to have blamed the “wider geopolitical context,” after Britain announced Huawei would be forced out of Britain’s 5G rollout by 2027.

ByteDance has been approach for comment.