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Is TikTok A Threat? Why Congress Is Freaking Out Over Alleged Data Collection

Elected officials from both sides of the aisle have grown concerned with social media app TikTok and the and user data it collects

Elected officials from both sides of the aisle have grown concerned with social media app TikTok and the amount of user data it collects.

Rep. Kat Cammack questioning TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew during the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on data privacy and child protection in Washington, DC on March 23rd, 2023. NATHAN POSNER/BENZINGA

“TikTok collects nearly every data point imaginable, from people’s location to what they type and copy, who they talk to, biometric data and more,” Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said during a grill session on Thursday, which saw TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew answer Congress members’ questions for five hours.

Much of the fear stems from various reports in which company employees, who have since been fired, used location services to spy on reporters.

Chew defended the social media company against the allegations and the insinuation the app poses a national security threat to Americans.

It’s important to note that TikTok’s data collection isn’t all that different from other social media companies such as Facebook and Instagram, both of which are run by Meta Platforms Inc. The Mark Zuckerberg-run company uses data to help advertisers target certain demographics.

The big difference is that TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a company based in Beijing. Because of the nature of China’s government, U.S. officials worry that ByteDance is beholden to the Chinese government, putting the privacy of TikTok users at risk. 

Chew had stated in his opening statement that ByteDance is owned by 60% by investors, 20% by the investors, and 20% by the employees around the world. The board members in are 5 people, which 3 of the members are American. He stated that TikTok itself, as the subsidiary, is headquartered in Singapore and Los Angeles, California.

“[Chinese citizens] must cooperate with Chinese intelligence whenever they are called upon, and if they are called upon they’re bound to secrecy. That would include you [TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew],” Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw said at the hearing Thursday.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew listens to questions from U.S. representatives during his testimony at a Congressional hearing on TikTok in Washington, DC on March 23rd, 2023. NATHAN POSNER/BENZINGA

Chew responded to Crenshaw, clarifying that he is Singaporean, not Chinese. Additionally, Chew said that ByteDance is not beholden to the Chinese government, despite allegations to the contrary: “Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew said.

TikTok had censorship policies in place in 2019, but has rolled those policies back, the company said.

TikTok maintains that it does not send U.S. data back to data centers in China. The company also denies that it even houses U.S. user data at its own data centers.

The social media company has a deal with the American company, Oracle Corporation, and said it moved all of its U.S. data to Oracle centers last summer following claims that TikTok staff in China could access Americans’ data. 

Still, legislators remain worried about TikTok’s data collection, given its wide use among young people and the fact that regulators have less control over what happens with the data because it is owned by a foreign company.

President Joe Biden, like his predecessor President Donald Trump, is urging ByteDance to sell the U.S. division of TikTok to an American company to allow U.S. officials to better police the platform.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) slammed the plans to ban TikTok from the United States as Congress had expressed concerns on privacy on data.

“Why should TikTok not be banned? First of all I think it’s important to discuss how unprecedented of a move this would be,” she said.

Other states that include Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma have banned TikTok on government-issued held devices due to security concerns.

If there is a national ban of TikTok, companies like Meta, Snap Inc and Alphabet Inc will likely benefit. 

Produced in association with Benzinga

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