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TikTok Responds to US Warnings, Says They’ve Got Nothing to Do With Chinese Government

U.S. lawmakers are worried that the app, popular among Gen Z, is a threat to national security.

by Lia Savillo
06 November 2019, 10:29am

Photo by Joel Saget via AFP

This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.

TikTok videos have taken over the internet. They’re short, funny, and can instantly go viral. But not everyone is laughing, like United States lawmakers who are concerned that the Chinese-owned app is a threat to the country’s national security.

TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd and is under fire for possible links to the Chinese government. U.S. lawmakers are now probing the company for any breach of user data security, among other things.

In response to this, the video app stressed its independence from the Chinese government in a letter sent to U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday, the South China Morning Post reported.

TikTok’s U.S. General Manager Vanessa Pappas said in the letter that the company stores all U.S. user data in the U.S., “with backup redundancy in Singapore,” noting that all are located outside of China.

“Further, we have a dedicated technical team focused on adhering to robust cybersecurity policies, data privacy, and security practices,” she said.

“In addition, we hired a leading US-based outside auditing firm which analysed TikTok and its data security practices, and we are committed to doing this type of audit on an ongoing basis.”

Pappas also added that the app’s investors were mainly big institutional investors, and that the app was not available in China.

Still, the company failed to convince Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who expressed his doubts at a hearing on the security of U.S. citizens' personal data on Tuesday.

"TikTok claims they don't store American user data in China. That's nice. But all it takes is one knock on the door of their parent company based in China from a Communist Party official for that data to be transferred to the Chinese government's hands," Hawley said.

TikTok’s popularity with teens comes at a time of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing over trade and technology transfers. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which reviews deals involving foreign buyers for potential national security risks, began looking into TikTok after ByteDance Ltd failed to seek clearance from them when it acquired Musical.ly, a similar social media platform.

The review was originally focused on the $1 billion acquisition from two years ago, but U.S. lawmakers later called for an investigation on whether the app was a national security threat. They are concerned that the Chinese company may be censoring politically sensitive content and questioned how the app stores personal data.

“While TikTok claims to store its data in the United States as of today, its Beijing-headquartered parent company, ByteDance, is subject to a new cybersecurity law that China will fully institute in 2020,” Kara Frederick, a fellow for technology and national security at the Washington-based think tank Centre for a New American Security, said.

The legislation would open the app to technical vulnerabilities in systems built and owned by Chinese companies including “backdoors in code that would allow the Chinese government access to third-party systems and security flaws hidden in a programming vulnerability.”

“Flaws could even be introduced later via a software update,” Frederick added.

About 60 percent of TikTok's 26.5 million monthly active users in the U.S. are between the ages of 16 and 24, the company said this year. It was also the most downloaded non-game app in the U.S. at the start of 2019, and the world’s fourth most downloaded non-game app last year.

Data security is not the only concern raised against TikTok. In October, dozens of ISIS-Backed accounts were detected on the app.

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