During a fiery appearance in front of United States (US) lawmakers, the CEO of the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok confirmed that China has access to US user data.
The revelation came when Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH) repeatedly asked TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew whether any China-based employees of TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, have access to US user data.
“After Project Texas [a $1.5 billion restructuring effort that’s intended to allay US concerns about China’s influence over TikTok] is done, the answer is no,” Chew said. “Today, there is still some data that we need to delete in Virginia and…”
After admitting that China-based employees can access user data Chew attempted to downplay the admission. When questioned by Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) on China-based employees’ access to US user data, he insisted that “we have to be more specific” and that “some user data is public data which means “everybody can search” for it.
Chew told Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) that ByteDance employees in Bejing do have access to American data.
“We rely on global interoperability and we have employees in China so, yes, the Chinese engineers do have access to global data,” Chew said.
Chew was also pressed on the revelation that ByteDance employees based in China used TikTok to spy on US journalists and monitor their locations. Rep. Dunn (R-FL) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) both asked him about this and whether TikTok “could target other Americans with similar surveillance techniques.”
Chew repeatedly disputed the use of the term “spying” and claimed that TikTok would “protect” and “firewall” US user data.
Lawmakers also expressed concern about TikTok censoring content and the impact of TikTok on teenagers. Some also called for it to be banned in the US.
“TikTok surveils us all and the Chinese Communist party is able to use this as a tool to manipulate America as a whole,” McMorris Rodgers said. “We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values for freedom human rights and innovation. TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path for more control, more surveillance, and more manipulation your platform should be banned.”
Chew pushed back against a proposed TikTok ban in the US and advocated for Project Texas.
The Biden administration has signaled that it supports pressuring ByteDance to sell the app rather than an outright ban. However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) said it “firmly opposes” a forced sale.
You can watch the hearing and get a transcript of the opening statement here.
The concerns raised in this hearing have been brewing for years. When President Trump was in office, TikTok faced a national security investigation and President Trump attempted to ban it in the US via executive order. More recently, reports have highlighted that a large number of ByteDance’s employees previously worked for Chinese state media and that TikTok employees can decide who (or what) goes viral at the click of a button.