Senators Sound Alarm on TikTok

The perceived threat of Chinese spying through the popular social media app TikTok has leaders in both parties sounding the alarm and urging a federal response. 

The video-sharing service is one of the fastest-growing social media platforms globally and has approximately 80 million users in the United States. But critics worry the Chinese Communist government could access biometric data, keystroke patterns, and location information that could be deployed against American users or to harvest intelligence. 

The controversy intensified when BuzzFeed News published leaked audio from internal TikTok meetings in which employees said company engineers in Beijing repeatedly accessed data from American users, including device information, birthdays, and phone numbers. That contradicts what the company previously told U.S. lawmakers. Spokespeople for the company counter that it does not collect “faceprints” — think fingerprints but useful for facial recognition software — and that keystroke rhythms are monitored only to guard against bots, not to identify specific typing patterns and habits of unique users. 

The leading Democrat and Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee want the country’s top consumer protection agency to investigate TikTok’s handling of user data. In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) and ranking member Marco Rubio (R-FL) blasted the company for its “apparent deception.” 

“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,” the senators wrote. “And coordinate this work with any national security or counter-intelligence that may be initiated by the U.S. Department of Justice.” Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act empowers the agency to combat “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce” and hints at the concern for TikTok users being unaware of how their data is being gathered, used, and shared. 

TikTok’s head of public policy for the Americas, Michael Beckerman, took to cable news to reassure regulators and users, telling CNN that the company has “never shared information with the Chinese government — nor would we.” 

A spokeswoman for the company also rejected the claims of secrecy in a press release: “For two years, we’ve talked openly about our work to limit access to user data across regions,” likely a reference to the company’s effort to “fully safeguard user data and U.S. national security interests.” Known internally as Project Texas, the initiative coordinates with the U.S. government and directs all U.S. TikTok user data to be stored in the Austin, Texas-based Oracle cloud, among other safety measures. 

Some experts remain skeptical. 

Klon Kitchen, a former CIA expert on cybersecurity and now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the Chinese government’s practices are no mystery but that he supports the investigation. 

“I think we already know everything we need to know because the Chinese laws are clear and have been understood for quite some time,” Kitchen told the Washington Examiner. “But it will be good to get the intelligence community on the record with a formal assessment as to the inherent vulnerabilities of Chinese-owned technology companies.” 

The request from the Senate to the FTC is the most recent chapter in an effort to ensure the Beijing-based app doesn’t share user data with the Chinese government. In the summer of 2020, then-President Donald Trump tried to use an executive order to ban new downloads of the video-sharing app and to encourage parent company ByteDance to sell TikTok to U.S. owners. The order faced various legal challenges and never went into effect, and a stateside sale did not materialize. President Joe Biden revoked the order in the first year of his presidency, instead instructing his Department of Commerce to review apps developed in “the jurisdiction of a foreign adversary,” a category that includes China. 

Civil liberties groups, however, worry that the risks of Chinese-owned apps remain vague, while the risks to the First Amendment from government interventions are clear. In court filings, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California challenged the Trump administration’s attempted ban of the WeChat app, which was named in the same executive order that sought to ban TikTok in 2020. A spokesman for the ACLU declined to comment on the proposed investigation. 

According to the company’s own advertising data, 43.3% of its adult users worldwide are between the ages of 18 and 24, and more than three-quarters of all its adult users are under the age of 35. The company doesn’t share its data about minors using the app, but parental monitoring software firm Qustodio found that children ages 4 to 18 with online access spent an average of 82 minutes per day on TikTok, surpassing the previously dominant platform among children: YouTube. 

Kitchen lamented the lack of consumer education on the dangers of TikTok, especially given how young most of the app’s users are, but said it emphasized the need for the federal probe. 

“The American public may not understand the threats associated with Chinese-owned tech companies like TikTok,” he said. “But their ignorance does nothing to diminish the threat.”

Reporting by The Washington Examiner.