TikTok CEO Tries to Placate Republicans, Claims App Keeps User Data From Beijing

TikTok CEO Tries to Placate Republicans, Claims App Keeps User Data From Beijing
Photo: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP, Getty Images

TikTok executives are attempting to assuage Republican officials that U.S. data is safe and sound in company hands, but their best attempts are unlikely to make any of these GOP lawmakers stray from the warpath against the popular social app.

The New York Times first reported that TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is trying to explain the company’s data policies to antagonistic lawmakers. Chew’s letter was in response to nine Republican senators who were calling on the company to answer to recent reports that TikTok was allowing the Chinese government access to U.S. user data. The lawmakers’ initial letter to executives dated June 27 also questioned whether TikTok — which is owned by China-based ByteDance — was allowing its parent company a role in decision making regarding data usage and its social algorithm.

Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn’s office provided Gizmodo with Chew’s response. The CEO’s letter attempts to explain how “100%” of U.S. data is being stored in cloud servers hosted by Oracle. He further claimed the company is working on “advanced data security controls” that can protect U.S. data with “independent oversight.”

All this rigmarole was sparked by a Buzzfeed report that cited internal recorded conversations from TikTok engineers who spoke about how “everything is seen in China,” with hints that included American user data. This is despite the company having previously tried to reassure congressional lawmakers that they keep all U.S. data in-house and out of the hands of Beijing. Just before Buzzfeed published its article June 17, TikTok announced it had completed migrating U.S. data to Oracle’s servers, a venture the company has dubbed “Project Texas.” Still, the company is vague about what controls it has in place.

Both TikTok spokespersons and the CEO have called Buzzfeed’s reporting “incorrect and not supported by the facts.” Chew said those working on the process of data transfer “do not have visibility into the full picture” and that the meetings where workers voiced concerns were taken out of context. He further claims that they have not handed over U.S. data to the Chinese Communist Party, but that the CCP has never asked for it either.

Chew’s letter further tries to answer Republicans’ concerns, saying that foreign employees — including those in China — “can have access to TikTok U.S. user data” subject to authorization and security protocols determined by U.S.-based security. Though he said ByteDance engineers “may assist” developing TikTok’s algorithms, Project Texas will supposedly vet and validate any changes.

It seems that nothing in Chew’s letter has deflected any of Republicans’ ire against the company. Blackburn has come out as a figurehead against TikTok among her fellow Republicans, and she now seems to be gung-ho for action against the company. Notably, she’s on the opposite end of governance when it comes to regulating companies that spew greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. She’s also known as “big telecom’s best friend in Congress.”

“TikTok’s response confirms that our fears regarding CCP influence within the company are well-founded,” Blackburn said in an email statement. “They should have come clean from the start but instead tried to shroud their work in secrecy. Americans need to know that if they are on TikTok, communist China has their information. TikTok needs to come back and testify before Congress.”

Republicans have a particular antagonism against the social media app, especially ever since former President Donald Trump demanded that ByteDance sell TikTok over its perceived use of U.S. data. Later attempts to outlaw transactions with TikTok were blocked by the courts. President Joe Biden, on the other hand, is taking a much softer, quieter approach to potential regulations. Last year, Biden’s administration announced they were creating a new “framework” to determine if foreign-owned apps pose a risk to national security.

Just this week, a member of the Federal Communications Commission Brendan Carr also came out against TikTok. He wrote a letter this past Wednesday to both Google parent company Alphabet and Apple saying that both should remove TikTok from their app stores.

Carr had been appointed under Trump and became a particularly Trump-y antagonist to big tech. In a previous interview with Gizmodo, Carr said “you’ve got TikTok’s U.S. policy heads saying and representing that our data is all stored here in the U.S… but when you ask that if it’s stored here but do they have access in Beijing, you get a lot of evasive answers.”

Meanwhile, there’s relatively little action being taken to protect American’s privacy from American social media companies.

Read both Republicans’ questions and TikTok’s answers below: