The CEO of TikTok tried to reassure U.S. lawmakers — who have renewed concerns over its sharing of U.S. user data with employees in China — that the video app company is taking steps to restrict that access to only a “narrow” slice of data.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew sent a letter dated June 30 to nine GOP senators in response to their inquiry this week “demanding answers on TikTok’s backdoor data access for Beijing,” a reference to China’s communist regime. Fears that TikTok represents a national security threat go back several years. In August 2020, President Trump ordered TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, to sell majority control of TikTok to American entities under the threat of TikTok being shut down in the U.S.; that was blocked by U.S. federal courts.
In his letter to the Republican senators, Chew wrote, “Many of your questions appear to stem from a recent BuzzFeed article, which contains allegations and insinuations that are incorrect and are not supported by facts.”
That’s a reference to a June 17 BuzzFeed News report that TikTok employees in China have “repeatedly” accessed U.S.-based users’ data. According to Chew, the access TikTok has granted to staffers in China to U.S. user data is part of efforts to shut off that access — with a goal of making “substantive progress toward compliance with a final agreement with the U.S. Government that will fully safeguard user data and U.S. national security interests.” News of TikTok’s letter was first reported by the New York Times.
TikTok — which claims to have more than 1 billion monthly users — says employees outside the U.S., including China-based employees, currently are allowed to access TikTok U.S. user data “subject to a series of robust cybersecurity controls and authorization approval protocols overseen by our U.S.-based security team.”
Going forward, Chew wrote, “certain China-based employees will have access to a narrow, non-sensitive set of TikTok U.S. user data, such as the public videos and comments available to anyone, to ensure global interoperability so our U.S. users, creators, brands and merchants are afforded the same rich and safe TikTok experience as global users.” Chew said that access “will be very limited” and will not include private TikTok U.S. user information, “and it will only occur pursuant to protocols being developed with the U.S. Government.”
In addition, TikTok continues to maintain that it has never shared data with the Chinese Communist Party, and that the Chinese authorities have not made any such requests. “We have not been asked for such data from the CCP. We have not provided U.S. user data to the CCP, nor would we if asked,” Chew wrote in the letter.
Chew reiterated TikTok’s recent claim that “100% of U.S. user traffic” is now being routed to Oracle’s cloud infrastructure and that it eventually plans to delete all American user data from its Singapore data centers. Chew’s letter also noted that the exec is a Singaporean national who resides in Singapore.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R.-Tenn.), who spearheaded the GOP’s information request to TikTok, said in response to Chew’s letter, “TikTok’s response confirms our fears about the CCP’s influence in the company were well founded.” The senator added in a statement, “The Chinese-run company should have come clean from the start, but it attempted to shroud its work in secrecy. Americans need to know [that] if they are on TikTok, Communist China has their information.”
Earlier this week, Brendan Carr, a Republican commissioner of the FCC, ratcheted up political pressure on TikTok in the wake of the BuzzFeed News report. On Twitter, Carr posted a letter to Apple and Google urging the tech giants to remove TikTok from their app stores — calling the app that’s popular for sharing viral dance trends and comedy sketches “an unacceptable national security risk.” The FCC does not have authority to regulate apps.