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Republican senators push TikTok for answers on data privacy

"We need answers from TikTok immediately on its policy of sharing Americans’ private information with the CCP," said Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.
Image: Pedestrians walk past an advertisement for Tik Tok on June 16, 2019 in Guangzhouo, China.
Pedestrians walk past an advertisement for Tik Tok in Guangzhou, China, on June 16, 2019. Lang xinchen / Imaginechina via AP file

Republicans are once again angling to take on TikTok.

Fourteen GOP senators and a Republican commissioner from the Federal Communications Commission have in recent days issued various letters calling for answers from the video app, arguing it represents a national security threat.

The missives come after a recent investigation published by BuzzFeed News in which the outlet said audio recordings showed that China-based employees were able to access U.S. user data. NBC News has not independently verified that reporting. TikTok responded to BuzzFeed News, saying it hopes to “remove any doubt about the security of US user data.”

Last Thursday, about a week after BuzzFeed News released its report, Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., led a group with four other Republican senators in writing a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen inquiring about “the Biden Administration’s delayed response to the national security and privacy risks posed by TikTok.”

On Monday, nine other Republican senators, led by Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., sent a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew in response to the BuzzFeed News article demanding answers to a series of questions about the company’s data practices.

TikTok, which primarily features short-form video, first rose to prominence around 2018 as one of the first major foreign competitors to U.S. social media giants. But its ties to China — TikTok is owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance— quickly made it a subject of scrutiny by privacy watchdogs and U.S. government regulators. In 2020, the Trump administration threatened to shut down the app in the U.S.

TikTok has stated in the past that data from U.S. users is stored in the U.S. rather than in China. 

Though President Joe Biden revoked former Trump’s August 2020 executive order that sought to effectively ban the use of TikTok in the U.S., Biden did not revoke Trump’s follow-up order which mandated that ByteDance destroy all its U.S. data and exit the U.S. market.

The letter to Yellen criticizes what the senators view as inaction by the Biden administration in following through on this order.

In a statement to NBC News, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who signed one of the letters, wrote, “TikTok’s deep ties to communist China and their unwillingness to be transparent in regards to data transmission is more than cause for concern — it’s a threat to our national security. We need answers from TikTok immediately on its policy of sharing Americans’ private information with the CCP.”

A TikTok spokesperson said the company plans to respond to the inquiries posed in the letter from Blackburn.

"We employ access controls like encryption and security monitoring to secure user data, and the access approval process is overseen by our US-based security team. TikTok has consistently maintained that our engineers in locations outside of the US, including China, can be granted access to U.S. user data on an as-needed basis under those strict controls," TikTok said in an emailed statement.

On Tuesday, Brendan Carr, a Trump-appointed FCC commissioner, tweeted a letter he wrote to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, in which he requested that the companies remove TikTok from their app stores. 

In the letter, which the letterhead dates June 24, Carr says the BuzzFeed News article is evidence that TikTok is not complying with the policies of the app stores of Apple and Google by allowing China to access U.S. data.

Apple and Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The FCC does not oversee or regulate the companies’ app stores. 

“TikTok is not what it appears to be on the surface,” Carr wrote. “It is not just an app for sharing funny videos or memes. That’s the sheep’s clothing. At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data.”

Shortly before the BuzzFeed News report was released, TikTok announced that the company would be storing all of its data through Oracle. But Carr said this does not adequately address what Carr said are the threats to national security given that TikTok has already been claiming to store all its user data in the U.S. 

“Indeed, TikTok’s statement that ‘100% of US user traffic is being routed to Oracle’ says nothing about where that data can be accessed from,” he wrote.