March 28, 2023

IntelBrief: TikTok’s Testimony Troubles

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

Bottom Line up Front

  • TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, answered some tough questions during a Congressional hearing last week, as U.S. lawmakers pounced on his company’s alleged links to the Chinese Communist Party and consequent risks to American users and security.
  • The social media company’s plans to move American user data to U.S.-based servers monitored by American personnel did not seem to satisfy the national security concerns of U.S. House representatives on either side of the political spectrum.
  • Leaks suggest employees of TikTok’s China-based parent company, ByteDance, wield more access to user data than the platform’s executives have admitted to in the past.
  • Already banned in various forms by numerous national governments, TikTok now faces the threat of a comprehensive, national ban in the United States, as well as an investigation into its parent company by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Shou Zi Chew, the CEO of TikTok, a social media platform for short-form video content, was grilled in a rare bipartisan showing of the lower house of the U.S. Congress last Thursday. During a contentious, five-hour meeting of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Chew was interrogated over issues ranging from possible Chinese government influence, surveillance, and censorship of the social media platform; industry-wide concerns like misinformation, child safety, and mental health; and even the app’s role in facilitating illegal drug sales. U.S. lawmakers also went after Chew personally: U.S. Representative Diana Harshbarger of Tennessee called him “an agent of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]” during the hearing, while U.S. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas took to Twitter later in the evening to call for the executive, a Singaporean national, to be deported from the United States.

A frequent topic of discussion during the proceedings was the security and transparency initiative launched by TikTok known as “Project Texas.” In response to criticism that non-public information belonging to TikTok’s U.S. users could be accessed by the Chinese government, TikTok had announced that moving forward, this data will be stored on servers located on U.S. soil, housed in a data center owned by a U.S. company (Oracle), and monitored by American personnel. In the near-term, however, TikTok still must contend with the presence of legacy data that has already been collected and stored on offshore servers. In his testimony, Chew conceded that this data would remain accessible to Chinese engineers until it is deleted and migrated to the U.S. servers, a process he anticipates being completed this year.

Links between TikTok, its Beijing-headquartered parent company ByteDance, and the Chinese government have bred fear among several U.S. government entities that the highly popular social media app could be used for surveillance, censorship, or influence campaigns. The heads of numerous U.S. national security agencies – including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and National Security Agency (NSA) – told the U.S. Senate earlier this month that they believe the app poses a national security threat. The U.S. Department of Justice also recently announced an investigation into allegations that ByteDance employees had accessed TikTok data belonging to U.S. tech journalists to identify their sources, while the digital media site Buzzfeed reported last year that leaks from internal TikTok meetings revealed ByteDance employees regularly accessed non-public information about the app’s U.S. users. In 2021, TikTok paid $92 million to settle a class action lawsuit that brought together 21 separate suits in the United States alleging the company shared user data, obtained without user consent, with third parties in places including China. While a 2021 report by the academic research lab CitizenLab could not prove that TikTok engaged in “overt data transmission to the Chinese government,” the report’s authors also would not discount the possibility that the servers they observed as recipients of TikTok data could act as intermediaries facilitating delivery to mainland China.

While its ties to the Chinese government may be unique to TikTok, the social media company’s broader data harvesting practices are hardly unique within the industry. In a daily brief discussing the testimony, Human Right Watch (HRW) pointed out last Friday that weak U.S. regulations give most social media platforms, not just TikTok, wide latitude to make content moderation decisions and leave users in the dark as to how their data is used. TikTok’s chief operating officer described the hearing itself as xenophobic. CitizenLab says that TikTok collects comparable amounts of data to Facebook. Meanwhile, some concerns raised at last week’s hearing over issues like child safety, self-harm, and mis/disinformation regarding contentious issues like COVID and elections could have just as easily been transferred to Twitter or Facebook. While the platform can be used to host critical content, HRW still stressed that, at the end of the day, “TikTok is beholden to the Chinese government … and ultimately, the ruling Chinese Communist Party.”

Beyond data harvesting, critics also fear the incredibly popular app might be used to promote narratives that support CCP objectives, though CitizenLab has described evidence that TikTok engages in political censorship of user-generated content as “inconclusive.” Nonetheless, U.S. lawmakers took time during last week’s hearing to excoriate Chew over the app’s suspension of various users who they claim were victims of censorship, including an American teenager who had posted a video drawing attention to the plight of China’s Uighur population – an ethnic group primarily located in Xinjiang province that some human rights groups and states, including the U.S. government, argue are victims of genocide and/or crimes against humanity. TikTok has insisted the user’s suspension was carried out for her use of a photo of Osama Bin Laden in a video which she had featured satirically. Nonetheless, in multiple instances during the hearing, lawmakers attempted to force Chew to discuss China’s treatment of the Uighurs, a subject that Chew sidestepped during questioning.

During her opening statement for last week’s hearing, Committee chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of the state of Washington called for an outright national ban of the app, calling it a weapon of the CCP. Hours before the hearing, China’s commerce ministry announced its opposition to a sale of TikTok after the Biden administration last week threatened to ban the app in the United States if ByteDance did not sell off its shares in the social media company. After a previous attempt to ban the app by the Trump administration was blocked in court in 2020, White House officials now acknowledge they need Congressional support to ban the social media app throughout the United States. While several critics of the platform have voiced concerns about the implications of TikTok, its wholesale ban has also raised concerns about the potential for government overreach. Nonetheless, the United States successfully passed legislation to ban TikTok from federal devices earlier this year. Several other states, including the United Kingdom, Belgium, Canada, New Zealand, Taiwan, and India, as well as the European Union, have also imposed bans of varying degrees over security concerns.