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A member of the Senate Intelligence Committee is pushing Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores because of national security concerns as the Chinese-owned company faces escalating prospects of a national ban amid bipartisan scrutiny of its data-sharing practices.
In a letter addressed to the chief executives of Apple and Alphabet, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. says TikTok’s popularity “raises the obvious risk that the Chinese Communist Party could weaponize TikTok against the United States” by forcing parent company ByteDance to “surrender Americans’ sensitive data or manipulate the content Americans receive to advance China’s interests.”
The government has increasingly been taking action against TikTok’s ties to China. In December, President Joe Biden signed a bill prohibiting the use of TikTok by nearly four million government employees on devices owned by its agencies. At least 27 state governments have passed similar measures.
There’s no evidence that the Chinese government has demanded American user data from TikTok or its parent company or influenced the content users see on the platform.
In a statement, TikTok said that the Bennet “relies almost exclusively on misleading reporting about TikTok, the data we collect, and our data security controls.” It added that the letter ignored its investment in a plan, known as Project Texas, to “provide additional assurances to our community about their data security and the integrity of the TikTok platform.”
Mirroring concerns made in a letter from a Federal Communications commissioner to Apple and Google in June, Bennett stresses TikTok’s data harvesting practices. He says its reach “allows it to amass extensive data on the American people, including device information, search and viewing history, message content, IP addresses, faceprints and voiceprints.” Unlike other tech companies that harvest similar data, he claims TikTok “poses a unique concern” because its obligated under Chinese law to cooperate with state intelligence work.
TikTok has over 100 million active users. Roughly 36 percent of Americans over 12 use the platform, spending over 80 minutes per day on the app — more than Facebook and Instagram combined. In November, TikTok confirmed that China-based employees could gain remote access to European user data. Reporting by BuzzFeed News has also revealed that company employees in China had access to US user data.
The data TikTok collects can be leveraged by the Chinese government to advance Chinese interests, according to the letter. It may be forced, for example, to tweak its algorithm to boost content that undermines U.S. democratic institutions or “muffle criticisms of CCP policy toward Hong Kong, Taiwan, or its Uighur population.”
According to Pew survey in 2022, a third of TikTok’s adult users report that they regularly access news from the app. Forbes has reported on the ability of TikTok staff to “secretly handpick videos and supercharge their distribution, using a practice known internally as heating.”
To curb criticism of its data-sharing practices, TikTok has announced a partnership with Oracle to move its data on U.S. users stored on foreign servers to Texas. The project also includes audits of its algorithms and creating a subsidiary called TikTok US Data Security to oversee content moderation policies and approve editorial decisions. U.S. employees will report to an independent board of directors.
The US Committee on Foreign Investment, which reviews business dealing that may be a threat to national sceurity, is reviewing ByteDance’s 2017 merger of TikTok and Musical.ly. It may force TikTok to sell to a US company, harkening back to when former President Donald Trump issued in 2020 an executive order demanding ByteDance to divest ownership of the app (the order was blocked by a federal court). Scrutiny of TikTok quieted when Biden took office, but the company continued to run into legal trouble over data-sharing practices. In 2021, TikTok agreed to pay $92 million to settle lawsuits alleging that the app clandestinely transferred to servers in China vast quantities of user data on children.
Anupam Chander, a professor of law and technology at Georgetown University who was briefed by TikTok about Project Texas, says the U.S. banning TikTok may “embolden other governments to do the same to apps and services from the U.S.” He adds, “It’s not clear to me that anything short of a sale will satisfy TikTok’s critics.”
TikTok’s chief executive Shou Zi Chew will appear before a House committee in March.
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