US senators are calling for an assessment of risks posed by video app TikTok, citing concerns related to parent company ByteDance sharing users' data with the Chinese government.
TikTok is a hugely popular app that lets users create and share short videos set to music. It has more than 500 million users around the world and more than 110 million downloads in the US. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator Tom Cotton have submitted a letter to acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, suggesting the sheer size of TikTok's audience poses a security risk, given the amount of personal data it gathers from users.
Their letter indicates ByteDance may be forced to share data with Chinese officials or give Chinese intelligence a means of spying on TikTok users' smartphones. Senators emphasize the app could be a potential target of foreign influence campaigns, similar to those seen in the 2016 election, and say further action is needed to address the threats posed by China-owned firms.
ByteDance has published a statement confirming TikTok's US user data is stored in the United States, with backup residency in Singapore. It claims it "does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China" and it has "never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content." It would not comply with such requests if they were made, TikTok says.
"We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government; TikTok does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future."
Senators note TikTok does not operate in China and stores US user data in the US; however, "ByteDance is still required to adhere to the laws of China," they write. "Questions have also been raised regarding the potential for censorship or manipulation of certain content." The app reportedly censors content considered politically sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party; for example, materials related to Hong Kong protests and references to Taiwanese independence.