Is Tik Tok on its way out from United States? Perhaps yes, should Republican Congressmen find adequate information that the Chinese social media shares substantial user’s data with China, where the owner ByteDance is headquartered. Republican members of Congress have expressed serious concern over accusations against short video app Tik Tok that it may have misled Congress about how much user data it shares with China.
Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Representative James Comer, top Republican on the Oversight Committee, have written to TikTok stating that information provided appeared to be inaccurate, including that TikTok does not track U.S.user locations. The tone and tenor of the letter is an indication of tough scrutiny in near future by the Republicans, who are all set to take control of the house in January following victory in the mid-term elections.
FBI Director Chris Wray has already flagged the risk a few days ago stating that the Chinese government could harness the video-sharing app to influence users or control their devices and pose a threat to the national security. The risk included “the possibility that the Chinese government could use to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations”. Beijing could also use the popular app to “control software on millions of devices”, giving it the opportunity to “technically compromise” those devices, Wray added.
Wray’s tough talk against Tik Tok should be seen in the context of earlier news reports that confirmed leaked recordings from internal meetings held by the social media app’s parent company. According to the New York Post, the recordings have revealed that China-based employees of ByteDancerepeatedly accessed data tied to US users — raising fresh concerns about TikTok, which once faced a ban in the United States because of privacy concerns. Audio clips from dozens of meetings revealed 14 statements from nine TikTok employees, who said that ByteDance engineers in China could access nonpublic US user data, citing material from more than 80 meetings.
The leaked recordings suggest that Beijing-based ByteDance’s ability to access US user data was farther-reaching than previously known — with one TikTok director stating at a September 2021 gathering that one unnamed engineer in China was “Master Admin” with access to everything. In another meeting, a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department purportedly said that “everything is seen in China”. The report suggested that TikTok officials may have downplayed the extent to which China had access to its database in communications with both congressional lawmakers and the public. Such disclosures are likely to become reasons for the Republicans to show the door to the Chinese company, a possibility that cannot be ruled out.
The issue of TikTok leakage of US users’ data first made the national headlines when the Trumpadministration repeatedly raised concerns that the Chinese Communist Party could improperly gain access to the personal data of American users. Trump officials had argued that parent company ByteDance had direct ties to officials in Beijing and posed a national security risk. Trump attempted to compel ByteDance to sell TikTok and also pursued an outright ban on downloads of the social media app by executive order.
The latter effort was blocked by a federal judge. President Biden later revoked the Trump-era effort to ban TikTok and instead ordered Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to conduct a review of apps that could pose a security risk. US’s latest tough talk against Tik Tok is a retaliatory move as the Chinese company had sued the Trump administration in August 2020 for the executive order that sought to ban the short-form video app from the United States. The suit had marked a major escalation in the fight between the then President Donald Trump and the wildly popular TikTok, which has over 100 million users in the US.
TikTok’s argument in the California federal court was that the American administration did not give the company a fair chance to defend itself from allegations that it poses a national security risk. The Trump administration had alleged that the app could “allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information — potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage”. TikTok had previously stated that it stores data on its US users in the United States and in Singapore, and that it would refuse any request by the Chinese government for US user data.
According to the CNN, since then TikTok has explored selling its US business to Microsoft, and reportedly to Oracle as well. But with the suit, TikTok is going on the offensive — challenging what it said is an unlawful executive order and a hastily completed national security review. A TikTok spokeswoman conceded that the company does allow some Chinese government entities, including the Chinese embassy in the US, to have verified accounts. The company is planning to expand its state-controlled media policy, which labels state-run accounts, in the “coming months” to include other government entities.