China-owned TikTok is racing to transfer user data to the US

So far, Project Texas appears to be primarily an exercise in geography, and appears to be well placed to address concerns about the Chinese government’s access to Americans’ personal information. But it does not address other ways China could weaponize the platform, such as modifying TikTok’s algorithms to increase exposure to divisive content, or modifying the platform to seed or encourage disinformation campaigns.

Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Cyber ​​Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, told BuzzFeed News that the Chinese government’s influence on TikTok algorithms is a more pressing concern than data smuggling. “I’ve never seen a particularly good argument for what the Chinese can get from TikTok data that they can’t get from hundreds of other sources,” he said. But he cited examples of the Chinese Communist Party’s use of technology to distort digital discourse, including TikTok’s previous censorship of speech harmful to China’s “national honor,” and a 2020 attempt by a Zoom employee in China to disrupt video meetings to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre.

TikTok strongly denies accusations that it is censoring speech critical of China today. And members of the TikTok Trust and Safety team, which sets and enforces the company’s content policies, portrayed it as relatively well insulated from the influence of ByteDance. Employees working on trust and safety described having less outreach to Beijing, and clearer reporting lines, than other employees BuzzFeed News spoke to — and described TikTok’s trust and safety practices as similar to those of US tech giants. However, the issue of reporting structure looms large: Like other top TikTok officials, the Head of Trust and Safety reports to the CEO of TikTok, who reports to ByteDance as the owner of TikTok. As long as the liability stops with ByteDance, “there is an upper limit” to how much TikTok can distance itself from the Chinese government, Lewis said.

US lawmakers have made clear that their concerns about TikTok go beyond where the data is stored. in 2019 tweetSenator Chuck Schumer said that under Chinese law, TikTok and ByteDance can be forced to cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. At a Senate hearing in October 2021, TikTok’s head of public policy for the Americas, Michael Pekerman, testified that TikTok’s privacy policy allows it to share the information it collects (including US user data) with ByteDance. He declined to answer Senator Ted Cruz’s questions about whether the policy allows TikTok to share that data with Beijing ByteDance Technology, another ByteDance subsidiary owned in part by the Chinese Communist Party.

At the same session, Senator Marsha Blackburn Beckerman asked if ByteDance employees had access to the TikTok algorithm. Beckerman, who did not directly respond to the question, said that the data of the American user is kept in the United States. I also asked Blackburn if there are programmers, product developers, and data teams in China working on TikTok. Beckerman confirmed that there is.

Lawmakers outside the US have also raised concerns about TikTok’s relationship with China. In June 2020, the Indian government banned TikTok, WeChat, and more than 50 other Chinese apps after a clash on the Indo-China border killed 20 Indian soldiers. The Indian regulator, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, alleged that the apps were “stealing and surreptitiously transferring” Indian user data to data centers outside India. In August 2020, Australia’s intelligence agencies began investigating whether TikTok poses a security threat to the country. In September 2021, the Irish Data Protection Commission opened an investigation into how TikTok transferred user data to countries outside the European Union.

Similarities between different countries’ regulatory concerns over TikTok and China underscore the potential importance of Project Texas. If the project is successful in the US, it could serve as a roadmap for TikTok in other jurisdictions (perhaps even in India, where it has been banned). It may also be a model for other large companies, such as Amazon, Facebook and Google, which face similar concerns from overseas regulators about the collection of personal information of their citizens.

Graham Webster, editor-in-chief of the Stanford-New America DigiChina Project at Stanford University’s Center for Electronic Policy, sees TikTok as a “guinea pig” due to lawmakers’ inherent skepticism about foreign companies collecting their citizens’ data. However, Webster says he is optimistic, because ByteDance has a strong incentive to make regulators completely comfortable with TikTok.

“This is a company that is looking for a way to actually do this,” he said. “They will keep trying until there is a clear defeat, because the amount of money available is enormous.” ●

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