TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew confirmed his mega-popular app is effectively Chinese Communist Party spyware and a threat to U.S. national security during testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday.
Below are the three biggest revelations from the hearing, providing more than enough reason for President Biden to banish the app from America if its Chinese owners refuse to sell the company.
1. CEO Admits Chinese Engineers Have Access to American Data
When Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., asked Chew if “ByteDance employees in Beijing have access to American data,” Chew confirmed, “Yes, the Chinese engineers do have access to global data.”
When Walberg asked if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has access to American data, Chew said no. However, there is an abundance of evidence proving TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is heavily controlled by the CCP, indicating the Chinese government does indeed have access to American data.
A highly comprehensive report submitted to the Australian Senate revealed ByteDance is not private, but better described as a “hybrid” state-private entity. The CCP has a stake in ByteDance, as well as a seat on its company board and its own party committee within the company.
Further evidence includes ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming’s 2020 public apology to the Chinese government for not promoting “socialist core values,” and Forbes’ 2022 report that 300 TikTok and ByteDance employees had previously worked for Chinese state media, including 15 who worked for the party concurrently.
Similar to Walberg, Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, asked whether ByteDance employees in China, including engineers, have access to Americans’ sensitive user data. Chew responded by refusing to deny that sensitive user data is stored in China and accessible to CCP-controlled ByteDance employees.
None of this should come as a surprise. This month, TikTok spokeswoman Brooke Oberwetter conceded American data would be accessible in China “under limited, monitored circumstances,” after Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., brought forward allegations that the company was overstating its separation from ByteDance.
2. CEO Won’t Pledge to Prevent Commodification of Personal Health Data
When Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., asked if Chew would commit “to no longer using data about users’ health, particularly their mental health, to push them content or sell ads,” Chew claimed that “as far as I’m aware” TikTok does not use users’ health data.
Chew’s response dodged definitively confirming or denying whether TikTok collects personal health data, and whether he would commit to not using said data to push content or sell ads. But according to ABC News, TikTok’s trackers, known as pixels, “link to data harvesting platforms that pick off usernames and passwords, credit card and banking information and details about users’ personal health.”
3. CEO Doesn’t Consider Spying on Journalists Wrong
When Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., brought up how TikTok spied on American journalists, Chew said that he “disagree[d] with the characterization that it’s spying.” Last December, TikTok admitted ByteDance employees used IP addresses to track the locations of two American journalists who had critically reported on TikTok. Whether Chew is willing to admit it, ByteDance employees improperly collecting data on the physical movements of its users is indeed spying.
Yet Chew reiterated he doesn’t consider the surveillance to be “spying” after he was asked a similar question by Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla. “I don’t think that spying is the right way to describe it,” said Chew of the surveillance done on American journalists.
McMorris Rodgers also asked whether TikTok censors content about topics such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, an event that has historically been heavily memory-holed by the Chinese government. Chew claimed, “That kind of content is available on our platform.” But in 2019, The Guardian reported that TikTok “instructs its moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong.”
“I will remind you that making false or misleading statements to Congress is a federal crime,” McMorris Rodgers told Chew. “I understand,” he responded.
Last week, the Biden administration demanded ByteDance either sell its stakes in TikTok or risk a nationwide TikTok ban. Brock Silvers, chief investment officer for Kaiyuan Capital, told CNN that it seems “extremely unlikely that Beijing will accept any deal that removes TikTok’s algorithm[s] from its direct control and regulatory authority.”
This is understandable, given — as McMorris Rodgers said during the hearing — the app is immeasurably valuable to China in influencing and spying on the United States. “To the American people watching today,” she said, “hear this, TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you, manipulate what you see, and exploit for future generations.”