In a congressional hearing held yesterday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew found himself in the hot seat, facing questions about the company’s data privacy and security practices, as well as its ties to the Chinese government.
According to digital media expert and Cal State East Bay professor Grant Kien, who spoke to the East Bay Echo toward the end of the hearing, concerns about TikTok sharing user data with the Chinese government may be legitimate, given the government’s history of intervening in the affairs of private businesses. However, for the average user, he believes the same concern exists with platforms like Facebook and Twitter sharing their data with the U.S. government.
“The average TikTok user should be concerned about the very same things that they would be concerned about with Facebook, Instagram or Twitter,” Kien said. “They all basically have the same privacy concerns.”
Granting permission to any application on your phone can potentially allow it to access any other app on your phone, Kien said. Deleting an app off your phone also isn’t equivalent to cutting the cord because of how apps can integrate with each other to continue collecting user data.
“It’s so ubiquitous and so common that most people just choose not to think about it,” Kien said.
Chew told lawmakers that TikTok takes privacy and security concerns very seriously, which is why the company has taken steps to firewall access to the data of U.S. users. The company also has plans to allow Texas-based technology company Oracle to review its algorithms and researchers to monitor its content ecosystem.
“We believe we are the only — the only — company that offers this level of transparency,” Chew said.
Members of Congress were not convinced and asked a range of questions over the course of the five-hour hearing, from how TikTok is protecting teenagers to whether the app has a backdoor allowing the Chinese government to control what users do and do not see. The day prior, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) said the hearing was a “Cold War crusade against China” and called on legislators to develop “a comprehensive approach to safeguarding and democratizing the social media landscape” instead of scapegoating TikTok.
“Every Big Tech company, both foreign and domestic, mines and sells our data for their own profits, and cracking down on surveillance capitalism is what we need to be focused on,” Bowman said in a press release.
Owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance, TikTok is a video-sharing platform that has become popular in recent years, particularly among younger generations, with 1 billion active monthly users worldwide and 150 million users in the U.S. Former President Donald Trump unsuccessfully tried to ban the app in the United States in 2020, citing national security concerns. President Joe Biden renewed calls to ban the app if its Chinese owners did not sell their stakes last week, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Ownership isn’t the issue, Chew said; ByteDance is a private company, is not owned by the Chinese government, and is headquartered in Singapore and Los Angeles. Three of its five board members are from the U.S., and 60% of the company is owned by global investors, 20% is owned by the founder and 20% is owned by employees around the world. Today, U.S. TikTok data is stored by default in Oracle’s servers, Chew said, and only vetted personnel operating in a new company called TikTok U.S. Data Security can control access to that data. That should ensure no employees based in China have access to the data without going through the proper protocols.
“There are more than 150 million Americans who love our platform and we know we have a responsibility to protect them,” Chew said.
What the industry needs is clear and transparent rules that apply to everyone, Chew said. Until those are developed, he said TikTok will continue to prioritize teen safety, firewalling U.S. data from foreign access, protecting free expression while defending against content manipulation, and being transparent by granting access to third-party monitors.