House Republicans say TikTok may have misled congressional staff in private briefings about the company’s handling of US user data, in a new letter to the short-form video app this week.
The letter dated Tuesday and addressed to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew reflects the latest escalation by US lawmakers as they scrutinize TikTok’s potential impact on national security. And it foreshadows how House Republicans, having gained a majority in the 2022 midterm elections, are likely to approach TikTok in the coming months.
In bipartisan briefings to discuss the company’s privacy practices, TikTok officials claimed that the app only collects personal information when users are actively using the app, and that employees based in China do not have access to US TikTok users’ specific geolocation data, according to the letter by Reps. James Comer and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the respective ranking members of the House Oversight and Energy and Commerce committees.
But public reporting by Consumer Reports and Forbes appear to contradict those statements, the letter continued.
“Both claims appear to be misleading at best, and at worst, false,” Comer and McMorris Rodgers wrote.
TikTok didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Tuesday’s letter calls on TikTok to preserve a broad swath of documents, communications and other records, in a preview of how House lawmakers could investigate the company in the coming months.
It also asked TikTok to produce “all drafts and iterations” of any potential national security agreement the company may be developing with the US government. And it reiterated a half-dozen other requests for information the GOP lawmakers had sent to the company during the summer.
The lawmakers asked that TikTok respond by Dec. 6.
“Americans deserve answers about how TikTok knowingly allows China to access their data, and E&C Republicans will continue to demand those answers,” said Sean Kelly, a spokesperson for McMorris Rodgers. “One immediate next step is to pass the American Data Privacy and Protection Act this Congress, which would require companies like TikTok to alert users if their personal information is being stored or accessed in countries like China—and give people the option to stop that information from being shared.”
Copies of the letter were also sent to the committees’ Democratic chairs, but those lawmakers, Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Frank Pallone, did not sign the letter. Spokespeople for Maloney and Pallone didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
US officials have expressed bipartisan alarm over TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, which critics say could be compelled by Chinese authorities to hand over data pertaining to US citizens or to act as a channel for malign influence operations.
Over the weekend, Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner told Fox News Sunday he believes “TikTok is an enormous threat” due to the potential data security risks as well as the possibility that China could wield its influence over ByteDance to control what US users see on TikTok.
“That is a distribution model that would make RT or Sputnik or some of the Russian propaganda models pale in comparison,” Warner said.
Echoing those concerns last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray implied that China could even seek to use TikTok as a covert tool for hacking, telling lawmakers the FBI fears TikTok could be misused by China to “technically compromise” and “control software on millions of devices.”
TikTok has acknowledged that US user data is accessible to China-based employees but has declined to cut off those data flows, saying that it is confident its talks with the US government will lead to an agreement that will “satisfy all national security concerns.”