TikTok won't commit to blocking flow of Americans' data to China

In this photo illustration the Chinese video-sharing social networking service company TikTok logo seen displayed on a smartphone with an economic stock exchange index graph in the background. Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The ongoing concerns about TikTok’s use of U.S. user data and its potential threat to national security were at the center of a Senate hearing Wednesday.

TikTok says it’s not committed to stopping flows of U.S. user data to China as the company’s chief operating officer testified that the social media company would work with the federal government to ease concerns about national security, CNN reported Wednesday.

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Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Pappas explained during her testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee Wednesday that the social media giant’s Chinese employees can't access U.S. user data. She added that TikTok wouldn’t provide that sensitive information to China, CNN reported.

But Pappas did not say whether ByteDance, a company based in China that launched TikTok in 2016, would hold on to U.S. user data from the Chinese government, according to CNN.

During her testimony, Pappas was asked by a lawmaker about a report released by Buzz Feed in June that featured leaked audio recordings alleging that engineers in China had access to U.S. user data dating back to Sep. 2021. Pappas denied those allegations. 

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The social media platform has more than 3 billion users, and it's popular among many because people can express themselves and create unique content for other viewers to see.

CNN reported that lawmakers are concerned that if U.S. user data is accessible by the Chinese government it may be used to identify intelligence targets or promote misinformation campaigns. National security laws in China require organizations in the country to cooperate with that government’s data requests.

Report finds U.S. data accessed by China

BuzzFeed obtained leaked audio from TikTok company meetings. In their report, BuzzFeed reviewed recordings that contained statements from nine different TikTok employees indicating that engineers in China have access to U.S. data between September 2021 and January 2022.

According to BuzzFeed, employees described situations where U.S. employees had to turn to their colleagues in China to determine how U.S. user data was flowing. American staff members didn’t have permission or knowledge to access the data.

The media outlet also noted in their report that a TikTok executive provided sworn testimony in a Senate hearing in October 2021 that a U.S.-based security team decides who can access user data.

Federal government tries to take action against TikTok

The government has taken steps to address TikTok’s sharing of U.S. user data. In Aug. 2020, former President Donald Trump signed an executive order prohibiting unspecified "transactions" with the Chinese owners of TikTok and WeChat.

The U.S. has tried to crack down on TikTok and its use, with some lawmakers — including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. — saying that the White House is moving too slowly to create a plan, FOX Business reported in February.

Rubio said at the time that TikTok remains a threat to U.S. national security and Americans’ — especially children’s —personal privacy, FOX Business reported.

The Biden administration argued that executive orders signed by Trump regarding TikTok data use were unenforceable, and any new laws needed careful consideration to ensure they withstand any legal challenges.

Additionally, the U.S. military previously banned its members from using the app on government-issued devices, FOX Business noted.

According to Business of Apps, TikTok generated an estimated $4.6 billion in revenue in 2021, a 142% increase. As of the first quarter of 2022, TikTok has over 1 billion users.

CNN reported that TikTok previously moved its U.S. user data to cloud servers managed by Oracle, from servers that the social media company controlled in Virginia and Singapore. The company said it would delete backups of U.S. user data from its servers. 

FOX 26 Houston, the Associated Press, and FOX Business contributed to this story. This story was reported from Washington, D.C.