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GOP senator calls on Yellen to 'ensure' TikTok severs its connections to China

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., wrote to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen after TikTok Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Pappas' testimony on Capitol Hill last week.
Josh Hawley
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks at a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday to examine social media's impact on homeland security. Alex Brandon / AP

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., wrote Monday asking Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to "ensure" that the social media giant TikTok fully cuts its ties with China.

TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, is based in China, a relationship that has become the subject of intense scrutiny from lawmakers as the U.S. assesses its relationship with the Chinese government. TikTok's chief operating officer, Vanessa Pappas, was grilled by senators on Capitol Hill last week at a hearing with leaders from several major social media companies.

"This shocking testimony calls for action," Hawley wrote in his letter, asking Yellen "to exercise your responsibilities as [chair of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States] to ensure that the Chinese company ByteDance fully divests TikTok and that TikTok sever any connections with any other Chinese company."

Hawley pointed to Pappas’ saying when he questioned her at Wednesday's Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing that Chinese-based engineers who work for the company have access to user data, although she insisted the company has "strict controls in terms of who and how our data is accessed," adding that U.S.-based user data is stored in the U.S.

Chinese engineers with access to the user data have it "to perform daily duties," like site performance management and book handling, she said.

"Does any employee who has access to U.S. user data, are they members of the Chinese Communist Party?" Hawley pressed. Pappas said that TikTok could not attest to the political affiliation of all employees and that no other global technology platform "could make that assertion," either.

"We have thousands of people that work at the company," she said. "So I’m not going to vouch on the political affiliation of any particular individual."

Lawmakers and regulators have raised concerns that ByteDance could provide U.S. user data directly to the Chinese government. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., introduced legislation this month that would prohibit installing and using TikTok on all government devices, as well as personal devices at military installations and a host of federal agencies. The legislation would also prohibit TikTok from accessing U.S. citizens’ user data from within China.

BuzzFeed News investigation this summer indicated that TikTok employees in China had access to U.S. data. NBC News has not independently verified the reporting.

In a Monday statement, a Treasury spokesperson said: "CFIUS is committed to taking all necessary actions within its authority to safeguard U.S. national security."

"Consistent with law and practice, CFIUS does not publicly comment on transactions that it may or may not be reviewing," the spokesperson added.

On Wednesday, TikTok wrote on Twitter that it is “making progress toward a final agreement with the U.S. government to further safeguard U.S. user data and address national security interests.”

Pappas insisted in her testimony last week that “in no way, shape or form” does the Chinese government exercise influence over TikTok’s behavior or policies and that the company does not share data with it. Pressed by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, about whether TikTok will commit to “cutting off all data and metadata flows to China,” Pappas said, “Our final agreement with the U.S. government will satisfy all national security concerns.”

Hawley also copied Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan in his letter Monday, asking for the FTC to investigate "whether TikTok has violated federal laws, including by engaging in 'unfair or deceptive acts or practices.'"