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Thursday, August 11, 2022

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Why lawmakers are not buying assurances from TikTok on China

FILE PHOTO: A man holding a phone walks past a sign of Chinese company ByteDance's app TikTok, known locally as Douyin, at the International Artificial Products Expo in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China October 18, 2019. FILE PHOTO: Reuters

FILE PHOTO: A man holding a phone walks past a sign of Chinese company ByteDance's app TikTok, known locally as Douyin, at the International Artificial Products Expo in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China October 18, 2019. FILE PHOTO: Reuters

Published Jul 11, 2022


Washington: Lawmakers are accusing TikTok of misleading Congress and the public about its security practices.

Reports have found that workers in China repeatedly accessed American user data and that the company remains entangled with parent company ByteDance.

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On Tuesday, Senators Mark Warner and Marco Rubio, the chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether the company engaged in deceptive practices.

The letter marked a major escalation against the company and highlighted how its attempts to assure officials their national security concerns were overblown were not landing.

"Warner and Rubio are national security stalwarts and their bipartisan concern that TikTok may have been misleading the public and government officials alike about US data being accessed from inside ‘China’ significantly raises the stakes for TikTok," said Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr, who has urged app stores to ban TikTok.

In response to the letter, TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said: "For two years, we have talked openly about our work to limit access to user data across regions, and in our letter to senators last week, we were clear about our progress in limiting access even further."

Here is why such answers from TikTok are ringing hollow on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers have repeatedly pressed TikTok to say whether Chinese government officials have access to American user data on the app through various channels.

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"We do not share information with the Chinese government," Michael Beckerman, the TikTok head of policy for the Americas, testified to the Senate Commerce Committee in October. He reiterated the remarks during a recent television interview, adding that TikTok would never do so.

But US officials have voiced concern that Chinese authorities could compel TikTok to share that data if it was accessed by workers in China or through an affiliated organisation.

During a 2020 interview with CyberScoop, TikTok chief information security officer Roland Cloutier went a step further in his assurances, saying "neither TikTok data, nor use, occurs in China," and so Chinese authorities would "not have jurisdiction over the platform".

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"The data does not even exist in China," he said. "The biggest fundamental truths are that the Chinese government does not ask for it, because it does not exist in China," he said. Cloutier has previously talked about trying to "minimise data access" to US information in China.

Senators said the remarks were contradicted by a recent report from BuzzFeed that found ByteDance employees in China "have repeatedly accessed non-public data" about American TikTok users, suggesting that their data could "exist" or "occur" in China.

TikTok said the report was "incorrect and not supported by the facts".

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Lawmakers are just as concerned about how TikTok fits into the corporate structure of its parent company, ByteDance, a technology giant in Beijing, and what it could mean for data access in China.

At the first Capitol Hill hearing on TikTok, Senator Ted Cruz grilled Beckerman about the Chinese government taking an ownership stake in a ByteDance subsidiary in China, which controls its domestic Chinese social media and information platforms.

"Would you consider Beijing ByteDance Technology to be a part of TikTok's corporate group with whom TikTok could share all of the information it collects?" Cruz said, citing concerns that its privacy policy could allow it to share American user data with the subsidiary.

"I want to be clear that that entity has no affiliation with TikTok," Beckerman replied.

His answer did not satisfy Cruz, who asked repeatedly whether the company considered the ByteDance subsidiary an "affiliate" under its privacy policy.

"You answer non sequiturs and refuse to answer very simple questions," Cruz said. "In my experience, when a witness does that, it is because they are hiding something."

According to the recent letter from Warner and Rubio, "TikTok officials reiterated to our committee representations they have previously made that all corporate governance decisions are wholly firewalled" from ByteDance.

A spokesperson for the Senate Intelligence Committee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to comment on the record, said the representations were made during a call held with TikTok in response to news that the company was skewing content on the war in Ukraine.

The exchanges are drawing fresh scrutiny after the BuzzFeed article said a TikTok team tasked with managing access to sensitive American data "reports to ByteDance leadership in China."

There is another point stoking concern about the TikTok parent company.

In response to a separate letter from Senate Republicans last month, TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew said: "ByteDance engineers around the world may assist in developing" algorithms for TikTok. The revelation raised concerns over how the company feeds content to users.

The Washington Post