Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the top Republican member of the panel, are calling on the Federal Trade Commission to mount a formal investigation of the relationship between China and the owner of social media giant TikTok.
“We write in response to public reports that individuals in the People’s Republic of China [PRC] have been accessing data on U.S. users, in contravention of several public representations, including sworn testimony in October 2021,” the senators told commission chairman Linda Khan in a letter made public late on July 5.
“In light of this new report, we ask that your agency immediately initiate a Section 5 investigation on the basis of apparent deception by TikTok, and coordinate this work with any national security or counter-intelligence investigation that may be initiated by the U.S. Department of Justice,” the senators told Kahn.
Warner and Rubio were referring to recent Epoch Times and other media reports that indicate individuals associated with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have regular access to data on American users of TikTok.
That flatly contradicts multiple assertions made to Congress and others by officials with bytedance, which owns TikTok, that U.S. users’ data is not made available to Chinese officials.
“In an interview with the online publication Cyberscoop, the Global Chief Security Officer for TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, made a number of public representations on the data security practices of TikTok, including unequivocal claims that the data of American users is not accessible to the Chinese Communist Party and the government of the PRC,” the letter continued.
“As you know, TikTok’s privacy practices are already subject to a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission, based on its improper collection and processing of personal information from children,” Warner and Rubio said.
The two senators are especially concerned that the relationship between TikTok and individuals connected with the CCP has been intentionally misrepresented before Congress.
“Additionally, these recent reports suggest that TikTok has also misrepresented its corporate governance practices, including to congressional committees such as ours.
“In October 2021, TikTok’s head of public policy, Michael Beckerman, testified that TikTok has ‘no affiliation’ with another ByteDance subsidiary, Beijing-based ByteDance Technology, of which the CCP owns a partial stake,” Warner and Rubio wrote.
“Meanwhile, as recently as March of this year, TikTok officials reiterated to our committee representations they have previously made that all corporate governance decisions are wholly firewalled from their PRC-based parent, ByteDance.
“Yet according to a recent report from Buzzfeed News, TikTok’s engineering teams ultimately report to ByteDance leadership in the Peoples’ Republic of China,” they said.
TikTok is among the world’s largest social media platforms, reporting in September 2021 of having in excess of 1 billion users. The user total grew by 45 percent in just one year. The app was introduced to the public in 2017.
The senators also expressed skepticism that TikTok’s U.S. users data would be insulated from CCP access despite multiple measures enacted by Beijing before and since the app became a worldwide hit.
“A series of national security laws imposed by the CCP, including the 2017 National Intelligence Law and the 2014 Counter-Espionage Law provide extensive and extra-judicial access opportunities for CCP-controlled security services,” Warner and Rubio pointed out in their letter to the FTC chief.
“Under these authorities, the CCP may compel access, regardless of where data is ultimately stored. While TikTok has suggested that migrating to United States-based storage from a U.S. cloud service provider alleviates any risk of unauthorized access, these latest revelations raise concerns about the reliability of TikTok representations,” the senators said.
“Since TikTok will ultimately control all access to the cloud-hosted systems, the risk of access to that data by PRC-based engineers [or CCP security services] remains significant in light of the corporate governance irregularities revealed by BuzzFeed News,” they said.
“Moreover, as the recent report makes clear, the majority of TikTok data —including content posted by users as well as their unique IDs—will remain freely accessible to PRC-based ByteDance employees,” they said.
Warner and Rubio have worked together on China issues for sometime.
In December 2020 when their committee positions were reversed, they issued a joint statement declaring that China “poses the greatest national security threat to the United States. Our intelligence is clear: the Chinese Communist Party will stop at nothing to exert its global dominance.
“Beijing’s infiltration of U.S. society has been deliberate and insidious as they use every instrument of influence available to accelerate their rise at America’s expense.”
The joint statement also warned that America’s “democratic values are threatened by China’s attempts to supplant American leadership and remake the international community in their image.
“The Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian leaders seek to threaten our free speech, politics, technology, economy, military, and even our drive to counter the COVID-19 pandemic.”