TikTok Senate Hearing Means Time May Be Almost Up for Popular Chinese App, Observer Says
18:03 GMT 16.09.2022 (Updated: 18:21 GMT 03.11.2022)
The Senate Homeland Security Committee grilled top TikTok’s top executive Vanessa Pappas in a hearing Wednesday, asking her whether the company has any China-based employees who are also members of the Chinese Communist Party. Pappas responded by saying that TikTok doesn’t vet employees based on their political affiliations.
The Senate’s three-hour long hearing
on social media’s impact on homeland security featured top officials from META, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok, but the Chinese short-form video hosting service took the brunt of the cross-examination from lawmakers.
“TikTok does not operate in China,” Pappas said at the hearing, emphasizing that top executives from the company, which is a subsidiary of China-headquartered internet giant ByteDance, are based in the US and Singapore. The CEO also dismissed claims made by US media in June
about TikTok user data being accessed from China, pointing to the company’s “strict access controls” and coordination with Oracle – the US tech company on whose servers TikTok’s US data is stored.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley’s tense exchange with Pappas proved the highlight of the event, and evoked a McCarthyist “are you a member of the Communist Party” tone reminiscent of the Red Scare witch-hunt of the late 1940s and 1950s.
“What the truth appears to be, besides the fact that we can’t get a straight answer on any of these questions, is that you have hundreds of employees with [what] appears [to be] access to user data that may very well be members of the Chinese Communist Party. You have no way to assure me that they don’t have access to our citizens’ data. And you won’t answer my questions in a straightforward way about whether a CCP member has ever gained access. I think from my own point of view [that] that’s a huge security problem,” Hawley said.
“Senator, if I may, we are one of the most highly scrutinized platforms,” Pappas fired back. “There have been many cybersecurity experts who have researched our platforms, including CitizenLab, which is a leading academic research unit based in the University of Toronto, who have said – and I’m happy to submit this for the record of the committee, that ‘our research shows that there is no overt data transmission to the Chinese government by TikTok…TikTok’s features and codes do not pose a threat to national security.’”
“Overt? Overt?” Hawley interrupted, questioning “who else” funds CitizenLab, and repeating his claim that Mrs. Pappas wasn’t answering his questions. “And the reason I think is pretty clear –because your company has a lot to hide. You’re a walking security nightmare,” he said.
Silly Hearing, Serious Competition
“Focusing on TikTok seems rather silly,” says Thomas Weir Pauken II, an author and expert on the China-US trade relations
and the tech war between the economic giants. “Most TikTok videos are simply dancing videos or humorous funny videos. So most people who are users watching TikTok are not likely to be people working for the government and [with] highly secure information.”
That means that even if the Chinese were trying to spy on Americans using the popular app, they wouldn’t get access to much useful top secret information, Pauken says.
TikTok is a major business rival of Meta’s Facebook*, and there could very well be behind-the-scenes collusion to get Washington to clamp down on the competitor using the argument that “they’re an American company” deserving special protections, while TikTok “is a Chinese company,” and that China “is not a friendly nation to the US,” the observer says.
Pauken also questions the timing of the hearing, pointing out that earlier month, Beijing accused
the National Security Agency (NSA) of hacking a top Chinese university engaged in research on modern weapons systems for the Chinese military and making off with 140 gigabytes of highly secure data in a hack attack in June.
“That being said, having the hearing shortly after the big announcement from China” could be “just a way of saying that the Chinese do the same thing that the NSA has done,” the observer believes.
Is It Really About Security?
Pauken challenges the narrative spun by Hawley and other lawmakers that TikTok’s operations are a matter of national security that ordinary Americans should be concerned about, pointing out that America’ own tech companies have recently admitted to cooperating with federal authorities to go after the January 6 protesters, giving the FBI access to Facebook messages of persons who attended, and monitoring the private messages of users who cast doubt on the results of the 2020 election generally.
“So Facebook is doing actually much more damaging stuff in regards to not protecting data privacy of its users than TikTok is,” Pauken argues.
15 September 2022, 17:04 GMT
The author suggests that when it comes to tech giants’ nefarious activities, he’s more concerned by the powers delegated to companies like Amazon and Microsoft, given their contracts with the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department worth tens of billions of dollars.
Road to Perdition
Pauken says that being anti-China and being in favor of “decoupling” economically and technologically from the Asian giant has become a major “trend” in US political circles, and predicts that the trend will continue, especially if Republicans take Congress in the November midterms.
“Perhaps TikTok will eventually get banned. But the high risk of banning TikTok is that other foreign technology firms…will be very reluctant to do business in America because they will fear that America is supporting a lot more trade protectionist measures…If TikTok gets banned, it sets a very dangerous precedent. It’s basically a message to all other foreign tech companies that they should be very concerned if they choose to invest in America and try to operate there because they may suffer the same fate as TikTok,” the observer sums up.
* Banned in Russia for extremist activities.