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Amid heightened scrutiny by U.S. officials over national security fears, TikTok on Thursday confirmed that it stores some of its U.S. users’ data in China.
What TikTok said previously: In his testimony at a House hearing in March, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew stated that “American data has always been stored in Virginia and Singapore” and that “American data is stored on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel.” However, he also said “We rely on global interoperability, and we have employees in China, so yes, the Chinese engineers do have access to global data.”
What brought the revelation: Weeks after Chew’s House testimony, a Forbes investigation discovered that TikTok stored “highly sensitive financial and personal information” of its “biggest” American and European stars on Chinese servers.
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This prompted U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) to demand answers. In a letter to Chew, the senators wrote, “We are disturbed by TikTok’s pattern of misleading or inaccurate responses regarding serious matters related to users’ safety and national security.” They requested that TikTok “correct and explain its previous, incorrect claims.”
What TikTok is saying now: In its response to the senators, TikTok pointed out the difference between “U.S. user data collected by the TikTok app” and information that creators provide to TikTok so they can be paid for their content. The company confirmed that the former are stored in the U.S. and Singapore but did not specify where the latter are stored.
Citing internal sources, Forbes reports that personal and financial information of such creators have been stored in China. Those allegedly include tax IDs and social security numbers.
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The bigger picture: The concerns over TikTok’s data collection practices are rooted in fears of the Chinese Communist Party’s supposed ability to demand user information on a whim. Under China’s national intelligence law, any company may be forced to spy on its customers at the request of local authorities.
Last year, a BuzzFeed investigation found that U.S. user data had been repeatedly accessed from China, with one Beijing engineer being cited as a “Master Admin” who “has access to everything.”
And in a wrongful termination suit filed last month, a former executive at ByteDance — TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company — accused the CCP of having “supreme access” to all of TikTok’s data, including those stored in the U.S.
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What China has said: A day after Chew’s House testimony, China’s Foreign Ministry stated that Beijing “has never and will not” demand information from TikTok about its U.S. users. It stressed that the U.S. government has provided no evidence of TikTok’s supposed threat to national security and only “repeatedly makes presumptions of guilt and unjustifiably oppresses the company.”
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