A TikTok executive refused to make a commitment that the hugely popular short-video app would cut off flows of Americans’ data to China during the first U. S. Senate hearing since recent reports on its connections to Beijing.
TikTok Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Pappas, along with executives from other U. S. big tech companies, testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Sept. 14. During the hearing, Pappas was hammered with a barrage of questions regarding Tiktok’s ties to Beijing and the potential for U.S. users’ data to be obtained by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has become a bipartisan concern.
“Will TikTok commit to cutting off all data and data flows to China, China-based TikTok employees, ByteDance employees, or any other party in China that might have the capability to access information on U. S. users?” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the panel’s top Republican, asked.
The short-video app, which the Republican senator says nearly half of American teens are using, is founded and owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based tech giant. The ties have drawn concerns in the United States and elsewhere over whether its data can be accessed by the CCP, given that its laws compel companies to cooperate with security agencies when asked.
Officials and experts say the personal data harvesting from Americans could be used by the CCP to conduct espionage operations, or even shape their perceptions to be favorable to the Chinese regime.
“TikTok does not operate in China,” Pappas said, a reply she repeated more than once during the hearing.
Pressed by Portman about TikTok’s structure, Pappas said, “we do have employees based in China.”
“We also have very strict access controls around the type of data that they can access and where that data is stored, which is here in the United States,” she added. “We’ve also said under no circumstances would we give that data to China.”
Wednesday’s hearing came amid renewed scrutiny of the app about its ties to the CCP after a June report by BuzzFeed News. Between at least September 2021 and January, Bytedance engineers in China had access to the nonpublic data of TikTok’s U. S. users, according to leaked recordings of 80 internal meetings cited by BuzzFeed News. In addition, TikTok employees at times had to turn to their colleagues in China to determine how U.S. data was flowing, which the U.S. staff weren’t authorized to independently access, the report said.
“Everything is seen in China,” a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department said in a September 2021 meeting, according to the report. The same month, a director addressed a Beijing-based engineer as a “Master Admin” with “access to everything.”
The latest revelations have renewed alarms among U. S. lawmakers. Leaders on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), urged the Federal Trade Commission to launch a formal investigation. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) and some others questioned the authenticity of the company’s testimony before the committee last year. The Federal Communications Commission commissioner Brendan Carr sent a letter to call for Apple and Alphabet to remove TikTok from their app stores.
Asked by Portman about the report on Wednesday, Pappas said, “those allegations were not found.”
“There was talk of a master account, which does not exist at our company,” she added.
Amid rising concerns, Portman made the request—more than twice—whether Tiktok would commit to “cutting off all data and metadata flows to China.” But the representative of TikTok appeared unwilling to answer it directly…. (Read more)