TikTok says no, senators, we’re not under China’s thumb – Naked Security

TikTok – the Chinese-owned, massively popular, kid-addicting, fine-accruing, short-and-jokey video-sharing platform – is a potential threat to national security, US lawmakers said last week.

Senators Tom Cotton and Chuck Schumer on Wednesday sent a letter to Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, asking that the intelligence community please look into what national security risks TikTok and other China-owned apps may pose.

TikTok’s parent company, Bytedance, is a private startup based in Beijing that was valued at $75 billion as of July. Most of that is thanks to TikTok and its Chinese equivalent, Douyin.

The senators pointed out that TikTok has been downloaded in the US more than 110 million times. At least one Chinese doctor specializing in addiction has warned that young people are so hooked on social media approval that they’ve been risking their lives to garner likes with their 15-second Douyin clips, which have featured things like dancing in front of a moving bus or trying to flip a child 180 degrees …and then dropping her.

The day after the letter was published, TikTok defended itself in a company blog post in which it reiterated what it’s repeatedly claimed – that Chinese law doesn’t influence TikTok, given that its data is stored on servers in the US:

We store all TikTok US user data in the United States, with backup redundancy in Singapore. Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law. Further, we have a dedicated technical team focused on adhering to robust cybersecurity policies, and data privacy and security practices.

The senators are familiar with that line, and they don’t necessarily buy it. From their letter:

TikTok’s terms of service and privacy policies describe how it collects data from its users and their devices, including user content and communications, IP address, location-related data, device identifiers, cookies, metadata, and other sensitive personal information. While the company has stated that TikTok does not operate in China and stores U.S. user data in the U.S., ByteDance is still required to adhere to the laws of China.

Look, guys, we’re not about kowtowing to the Chinese government. We’re dedicated to entertainment and creativity, TikTok said in its post. The company denied ever having been asked by the Chinese government to remove content and said it “would not do so if asked. Period.”

But how, the senators asked, would we even know if that were true? As it is, there’s no legal means to appeal a content removal request in China, they pointed out.

Security experts have voiced concerns that China’s vague patchwork of intelligence, national security, and cybersecurity laws compel Chinese companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. Without an independent judiciary to review requests made by the Chinese government for data or other actions, there is no legal mechanism for Chinese companies to appeal if they disagree with a request.