WASHINGTON: The CEO of TikTok made a rare public appearance Thursday (Mar 23) before a US Congressional committee, where he faced a grilling on data security and user safety while he makes his own case for why the hugely popular video-sharing app shouldn't be banned.
Chew Shou Zi's testimony comes at a crucial time for the company, which has acquired 150 million American users but is under increasing pressure from US officials. TikTok and its parent company ByteDance have been swept up in a wider geopolitical battle between Beijing and Washington over trade and technology.
In her opening statement, Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican, assailed the social platform's trustworthiness because of its close ties to Beijing.
“Mr Chew, you are here because the American people need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security,” McMorris Rodgers said. "TikTok has repeatedly chosen a path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation. Your platform should be banned."
The American users on TikTok are "Americans that the CCP can collect sensitive information on, and control what we ultimately see, hear and believe," she added, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
"TikTok collects nearly every data point imaginable - from people's location to what they type and copy, who they talk to, to biometric data and more.
"We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values - values for freedom, human rights and innovation."
Chew, a 40-year-old Singapore native, told reporters before entering the hearing: “There are many misconceptions about our company and I’m very proud to come here and represent them and all our users in this country."
Later, in opening remarks, he said: "ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government and is a private company.
"60 per cent of the company is owned by global institutional investors. Twenty per cent is owned by the founder and 20 per cent owned by employees around the world," he added.
"We believe what's needed are clear transparent rules that apply broadly to all tech companies - ownership is not at the core of addressing these concerns."
Chew said TikTok does "not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government ... It is our commitment to this committee and all our users that we will keep (TikTok) free from any manipulation by any government".
But the top Democrat on the panel, Representative Frank Pallone, argued with that statement, saying, "My problem here is, you're trying to give the impression that you're going to move away from Beijing and the Communist Party ... But the commitments that we would seek to achieve those goals are not being made today.
"You're gonna continue to gather data, you're gonna continue to sell data ... and continue to be under the aegis of the Communist Party," Pallone added.
Chew also told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that some US data remained accessible to company staff in China.
"Today, there is still some data we need to delete," he said, while touting a company plan that would take all American data out of the reach of Chinese law.
On Wednesday, the company sent dozens of popular TikTokers to Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers to preserve the platform. It has also been putting up ads all over Washington that tout promises of securing users data and privacy and creating a safe platform for its young users.
TikTok has been dogged by claims that its Chinese ownership means user data could end up in the hands of the Chinese government or that it could be used to promote narratives favorable to the country's Communist leaders.
“We understand the popularity of Tiktok, we get that,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “But the president’s job is to make sure again that the Americans, national security is protected as well. ”
A US ban on an app would be unprecedented and it’s unclear how the government would go about enforcing it.
Experts says officials could try to force Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores, preventing new users from downloading it as well as preventing existing users from updating it, ultimately rendering it useless.
The US could also block access to TikTok’s infrastructure and data, seize its domain names or force internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon to filter TikTok data traffic, said Ahmed Ghappour, a criminal law and computer security expert who teachers at Boston University School of Law.
But a tech savvy user could still get around restrictions by using a virtual private network to make it appear the user is in another country where it's not blocked, he said.
To avoid a ban, TikTok has been trying to sell officials on a US$1.5 billion plan called Project Texas, which routes all US user data to domestic servers owned and maintained by software giant Oracle.
Under the project, access to US data is managed by US employees through a separate entity called TikTok US Data Security, which employs 1,500 people, is run independently of ByteDance and would be monitored by outside observers.
As of October, all new US user data was being stored inside the country. The company started deleting all historic US user data from non-Oracle servers this month, in a process expected to be completed later this year, Chew said.
Generally, researchers have said TikTok behaves like other social media companies when it comes to data collection. In an analysis released in 2021, the University of Toronto’s nonprofit Citizen Lab found TikTok and Facebook collect similar amounts of user data, including device identifiers that can be used to track a user and other information that can piece together a user’s behavior, all valuable information for advertisers.
To block such tracking, Congress, the White House, US armed forces and more than half of US states have banned the use of the app from official devices.
But wiping away all the data tracking associated with the platform might prove to be difficult. In a report released this month, the cybersecurity company Feroot said so-called tracking pixels from ByteDance, which collect user information, were found on 30 US state websites, including some where the app has been banned for official use.
Other countries including Denmark, Canada, and New Zealand, along with the European Union, have already banned TikTok from devices issued to government employees, citing cybersecurity concerns.
David Kennedy, a former government intelligence officer who runs the cybersecurity company TrustedSec, agrees with restricting TikTok access on government-issued phones because they might contain sensitive military information or other confidential material. A nationwide ban, however, might be too extreme, he said. He also wondered where it might lead.
“We have Tesla in China, we have Microsoft in China, we have Apple in China. Are they going to start banning us now?" Kennedy said. “It could escalate very quickly.”