TikTok CEO Says US Data Never Shared With Chinese Government

TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew. Image credit: TikTok

As he prepares to face US lawmakers, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew says the app never shared US data with Chinese government

The CEO of TikTok has outlined his last ditch attempt to halt a nationwide ban in America – a day before he is set to appear before US lawmakers.

TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew is set to testify before the US House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday 23 March.

It comes as American lawmakers prepare a bill that could ban the social media platform entirely from the United States on national security grounds.

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TikTok ban

TikTok is used by more than 150 million Americans, but that nationwide ban of TikTok in the United States seems increasingly likely, after the White House recently added its backing to the bill from a bipartisan group of a dozen US senators.

And unfortunately for TikTok, it is not just facing bans in the United States.

India banned TikTok and other Chinese apps back in July 2020, and this year TikTok was banned on federal devices in United States, as well in Canada, Belgium and the European Commission.

At least 32 of fifty US states have also banned TikTok on state devices.

US officials for a while now have alleged China’s government could force TikTok parent ByteDance to hand over data on users that could be used for intelligence or disinformation purposes.

Last week the UK government announced a TikTok ban would be applied to all mobile devices issued to government ministers and civil servants.

Shortly after that New Zealand also banned TikTok from government devices, and the BBC advised its staff to delete TikTok from corporate phones over privacy and security concerns.

Meanwhile the Chinese owner ByteDance is reportedly being urged to divest itself from TikTok, to help address national security concerns.

CEO testimony

TikTok’s case was not helped last December, when ByteDance admitted that some staff members had improperly accessed TikTok user data of two journalists, but they were no longer employed by the company.

Forbes also reported that ByteDance had tracked multiple Forbes journalists including some who formerly worked at BuzzFeed “as part of a covert surveillance campaign” aimed at discovering the source of leaks.

Last October TikTok denied a media report that alleged a Chinese team planned to track the locations of US citizens.

Forbes had reported that a China-based team at TikTok’s parent organisation ByteDance, had planned to use the app to monitor the personal location of some specific American citizens.

Into this environment of official suspicion, Reuters reported that TikTok’s chief executive will tell lawmakers that TikTok has never, and would never, share US user data with the Chinese government.

“TikTok has never shared, or received a request to share, US user data with the Chinese government. Nor would TikTok honor such a request if one were ever made,” Shou Chew will testify on Thursday, according to written testimony posted on Tuesday by the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.

ByteDance, TikTok
TikTok owner ByteDance. Image credit: ByteDance

He reportedly added that TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is not owned or controlled by any government or state entity.

“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew will say to the committee.

Last week, TikTok said the Biden administration demanded that its Chinese owners divest their stake in the app or it could face a US ban.

“Bans are only appropriate when there are no alternatives. But we do have an alternative,” Chew’s testimony reportedly said.

US pressure

TikTok has reportedly said it has spent more than $1.5 billion on what it calls rigorous data security efforts under the name “Project Texas” and has tried to convince lawmakers and the Biden administration to support the plan.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) had unanimously recommended in 2020 that ByteDance divest TikTok.

Under pressure from then-President Trump, ByteDance in late 2020 unsuccessfully sought to finalise a deal with Walmart and Oracle to shift TikTok’s US assets into a new entity and Trump then lost court battles seeking to ban TikTok.

The video app reportedly spent more than two years in talks with CFIUS seeking to reach an agreement on protecting US user data.

Reuters reported that TikTok has formed a special-purpose subsidiary, TikTok US Data Security (USDS), that currently has nearly 1,500 full-time employees and contracted with Oracle to store TikTok’s US user data.

“Oracle has already begun inspecting TikTok’s source code and will have unprecedented access to the related algorithms and data models,” Chew’s testimony reportedly said.

Chew said when the process is complete “all protected US data will be under the protection of US law and under the control of the US-led security team. Under this structure, there is no way for the Chinese government to access it or compel access to it.”

The company said it had started this month to delete US user protected data in data centres in Virginia and Singapore after it started routing new US data to the Oracle Cloud last year.

Chew’s testimony said it expects this process to be completed later this year.

According to Reuters, Chew’s testimony says 60 percent of ByteDance is owned by global institutional investors including Blackrock, General Atlantic, and Sequoia, about 20 percent by the company’s founders, and about 20 percent owned by its employees “including thousands of Americans.”

Chew says current versions of the app do not collect precise or approximate GPS information from US users.