On Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew found himself in the hot seat, facing four-and-a-half hours of questioning at a US congressional hearing. The relentless, never-ending line of questioning left Mr Chew bruised and damaged after giving evidence. Despite the grandstanding by politicians from both sides of the aisle, we learned a thing or two. Here are five takeaways from the hearing:
- Legislators were United Against TikTok
- ByteDance Engineers in China have Access to Some US Data
- Chew has Shares in ByteDance
- Chew’s Children Do Not Use TikTok
- What About Cambridge Analytica?
Legislators were United Against TikTok
The level of distrust and scepticism towards TikTok from both Republicans and Democrats was stark. For once, there was agreement between politicians from both parties. The bipartisan committee in Congress was united in their belief that TikTok is a security threat. TikTok complained afterwards that the platform’s measures to keep data safe were not given enough attention. Moreover, TikTok’s spokesperson said that there was no mention of the livelihoods of the five million businesses on TikTok or the First Amendment implications of banning a platform loved by 150 million Americans.
ByteDance Engineers in China have Access to Some US Data
During the hearing, Mr Chew discussed “Project Texas,” a proposal that would see all data stored in the US under the watch of American firm Oracle. However, as of now, the proposal is not fully operational. Mr Chew confirmed that engineers at ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, have access to data. The politicians’ point was that if engineers in China have access to data, then the Chinese government could also access it.
Chew has Shares in ByteDance
Mr Chew attempted to distance TikTok from ByteDance, but by any definition, the Chinese company owns TikTok. Mr Chew used to be ByteDance’s chief financial officer. Initially, Mr Chew did not want to say whether he owned shares in ByteDance. Pressed by lawmakers, he eventually said he did, but downplayed the connection. China’s government said it would oppose any US plan to force ByteDance to sell TikTok.
Chew’s Children Do Not Use TikTok
When asked by congresswoman Nanette Barragán whether his children used TikTok, Mr Chew said they did not because they live in Singapore. In Singapore, the version of the app for children younger than 13 is not available. Mr Chew clarified that the children’s version of the app is available in the US, and he would let his children use it if they were in America.
What About Cambridge Analytica?
Mr Chew didn’t often take the fight back to members of Congress. However, when asked about TikTok’s use of user data, he said, “With all due respect, American companies don’t have a great track record with data…Just look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.” The harvesting of Facebook users’ personal information by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consultancy, and other third-party apps caused an uproar when it emerged in 2018.
It was also revealed that engineers at ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, have access to data, which raised concerns about potential access by the Chinese government. Additionally, Mr Chew’s ownership of shares in ByteDance was brought to light, and he attempted to distance TikTok from the company. The hearing also shed light on TikTok’s measures to keep data safe, which the company claimed were not given enough attention.
Overall, the hearing highlighted the ongoing concerns surrounding TikTok’s security and data privacy. While TikTok has taken steps to address these concerns, the hearing made it clear that there is still work to be done to build trust with lawmakers and the public. It remains to be seen what actions will be taken in response to the concerns raised at the hearing, but it is clear that TikTok will need to continue to prioritize data privacy and security measures in order to address these concerns and maintain the trust of its users.