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Tipsheet

TikTok Got Caught Withholding Information on Data Sharing With China

AP Photo

Scrutiny of TikTok's privacy and data sharing practices have come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks, with even some Democrat lawmakers now agreeing with Republicans and acknowledging that President Trump "was right" to seek a ban on the popular video app unless it was sold to a U.S. company (as Leah reported here). 

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As it turns out, TikTok is also now in hot water for what GOP lawmakers now say is withholding information from Congress about how it secures users' data and what may end up being shared with the Chinese Communist Party.

In a letter, House Oversight and Reform Committee Ranking Member James Comer (R-KY) — who will chair the committee once Republicans take control in January and recently announced an investigation of President Biden and his family's foreign businesses — put TikTok's CEO on blast. 

According to Comer's timeline, the committee first requested "documents and information regarding TikTok's organizational structure and its data sharing and privacy practices relating to China" on July 14. TikTok sent its responses to the congressional inquiry on July 28 and TikTok staff subsequently "provided a bipartisan briefing" on September 7.

But, as the letter explains, Comer and his colleagues "still have unanswered questions" because, the GOP lawmaker alleges, TikTok "failed to provide responsive documents requested" by the committee. "Additionally, some of the information TikTok provided during the staff briefing appears to be untrue or misleading, including that TikTok does not track U.S. user locations."

Comer noted that, if TikTok staff did in fact mislead or outright lie in its congressional briefing, such a revelation is "deeply concerning" and other reporting from Consumer Reports and Forbes seems to debunk the claims made by TikTok about tracking user locations or monitoring their activity even when not using the app, as well as who in China has access to that data. 

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Here's how Comer summarized the reporting on TikTok's seemingly nefarious surveillance-type activity:

First, according to Consumer Reports, TikTok embeds TikTok trackers called “pixels” across the internet to then gather and access internet browsing and search data from Americans, including those that do not even have TikTok downloaded on their device.7 This includes tracking data from websites ending with “.org”, “.edu”, and “.gov.”8 This implies TikTok is clandestinely gathering some of Americans’ most sensitive internet history, regardless of whether they use the application or not.

Second, according to Forbes, a team of China-based ByteDance employees planned to use TikTok to track and monitor specific location data of Americans.9 It is unclear if this plan included tracking U.S. government officials, journalists, or other public figures.10 It is also unclear if this plan included tracking CCP dissidents based in the U.S. According to employees responsible for TikTok’s data, “it is impossible to keep data that should not be stored in [China] from being retained in [China]-based servers.…”11 If true, these reports are deeply concerning and provide significant evidence that TikTok may have made misleading statements during its briefing with bipartisan Committee staff. 

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Not great. And even worse if TikTok just got caught misleading Congress about such aspects of its app. But the company may have thought it was going to have little resistance from Washington, given its reported success in moving ahead with a deal in which the Biden administration would allow TikTok to continue operating in the United States with little or no changes to its functionality.

Comer notes in his letter that "New York Times reporting suggesting TikTok and the Biden Administration may be close to an agreement to allow TikTok to remain operational in the U.S. without any major changes to its corporate structure" makes TikTok's apparent attempt to withhold information from Congress all the more concerning. "Additionally, according to The Wall Street Journal, any deal between the Biden Administration and TikTok may be subject to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) opposition and veto," Comer adds. "It is troubling that the Administration may be considering an agreement with any private company that is subject to approval by the CCP." No kidding. 

"According to reports, over the course of the past year, the Biden Administration and TikTok have been negotiating a deal to allow TikTok to remain in operation in the U.S" in which TikTok is winning over the White House as they "came to terms on the foundation of an agreement that includes changes to TikTok’s data security and governance without requiring China-based ByteDance to relinquish its authority over the social media app."

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So Biden is, again, letting China run all over his administration in the form of a CCP-run company that has, according to members of Congress, been misleading lawmakers while working on negotiating a deal to remain active in the United States without uncoupling the company from communists in China. 

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