Some of the US Senate’s leading China critics have warned that even a full divestment of TikTok by its Chinese owner would not assuage their concerns about the viral video-sharing app’s data-sharing practices.
As TikTok’s popularity has skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, it has drawn intense scrutiny over its links to China. A consortium of US investors led by Sequoia and General Atlantic are in talks with the US Treasury to see if spinning out TikTok from its Chinese owner, ByteDance, would allay the US government’s national security issues with the app.
Josh Hawley, a Republican Senator from Missouri who is a China hawk, has introduced legislation to ban the app from the phones of federal employees. He told the Financial Times that while “full divestment” of TikTok by ByteDance would be a “major step forward”, there would still need to be further restrictions on the amount of data collected by the app.
“They don’t need to be vacuuming up massive amounts of personal information and data that they don’t need in order to run their applications. I think that’s probably an outstanding issue, regardless of who owns it,” Mr Hawley said in an interview.
He also said any option that left ByteDance with a stake in the company, even as little as 10 per cent or less, would not be acceptable to him on national security grounds.
“I’m not a fan of ByteDance having any stake in the company whatsoever,” Mr Hawley said, adding that the administration should place the company on the commerce department’s “entity list”. The move — which is being considered by the White House — would make it exceptionally hard for US companies to provide technology to TikTok.
Marco Rubio, the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, also signalled that the sale of TikTok to US investors would not be enough to resolve his concerns about the app.
Mr Rubio, who represents Florida, said TikTok still needed to answer questions on where its data was stored and how it would be protected. He accused the company of providing “insufficient” information on how its algorithms controlled content.
“Until TikTok’s owners — regardless of who that might be — can answer these basic questions and get its story straight, I remain concerned about the company’s activities and reported ties to China,” he said.
A Republican aide to the House energy and commerce committee, which has played a leading role in scrutinising ByteDance, said TikTok would still be scrutinised closely by lawmakers concerned about data privacy and protection, even if it were fully spun off.
ByteDance is the latest Chinese technology company to come under pressure from US regulators, joining Huawei, the telecoms equipment maker, as well as surveillance companies including Hikvision.
Last November, the US launched a national security investigation into ByteDance over its 2017 purchase of social media service Musical.ly, the deal that paved the way for the explosive growth of TikTok. That review, by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, is ongoing.
On Wednesday, Steven Mnuchin, Treasury secretary, said he would be making a recommendation to President Donald Trump as a result of the Cfius review of the ByteDance-Musical.ly deal, as soon as this week. The Treasury did not reply to a request for comment.
But even if the purchase is approved by Cfius, the prospect of a political backlash among Republican China hawks on Capitol Hill could put pressure on Mr Trump to reject the deal.
While some cyber security experts argue that the amount of data that TikTok collects from its users is no more than other big digital advertising platforms, such as Facebook and Google, the question of whether that data is accessible to the Chinese government is hotly debated.
Mr Trump’s re-election campaign earlier this month placed ads on Facebook suggesting that TikTok was “spying” on its tens of millions of US users, a claim the company has denied.
TikTok’s privacy policies state that American user data is stored on servers in the US or Singapore. However, the company says it “may share . . . information with a parent, subsidiary, or other affiliate of our corporate group”.
Some government agencies have warned employees not to download and use the app, including the Pentagon, which has banned the app from government-issued devices, and the Transportation Security Administration.
On Tuesday, the campaign of Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, told staff to remove the app from both work and personal devices, a staffer confirmed.
TikTok did not respond to requests for comment.
Additional reporting by Hannah Murphy in San Francisco
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