Short-form goofiness. No more succinct and accurate description can be offered about the social media app TikTok.
The video-sharing mobile site, meant to “inspire creativity and bring joy,” specializes in brief humor, lip-syncing, cute animals and various oddities, and it appeals largely to young people.
But TikTok has a back-end component that worries those concerned with data rights for internet users. The China-based owner of the app has shown little appetite for explaining what it does with consumer information gleaned from the app.
“The threat isn’t just to children’s privacy. It’s a threat to our national security,” Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley said.
On Tuesday, the Republican lawmaker chaired his first Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee hearing, an oversight gathering with the title, “How Corporations and Big Tech Leave Our Data Exposed to Criminals, China and Other Bad Actors.”
Witnesses included a representative from Microsoft. A chair at the witness table remained vacant to mark the invitation declined by TikTok.
“TikTok hasn’t been honest with American consumers,” Hawley said in an interview Wednesday with News-Press NOW. “Who knew that it was scooping up all this data? It’s not just tracking the videos that were uploaded. It’s tracking your location, it’s tracking your phone book, it’s tracking — potentially — your messages, it’s tracking you around the web.”
And because of the laws in China, which call for a sharing of information with the government, all those bytes of data can potentially come to rest in the hands of leaders of an adversarial nation.
“It’s sending all of that back to the parent company, and Beijing has access potentially to all of it,” Hawley said.
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a technology company with its headquarters in Beijing.
During a separate hearing on Tuesday, the Missouri senator questioned FBI Director Christopher Wray about other data going from the United States to China, also with the possibility of being put to wrongful use.
“American companies like Apple are storing huge amounts of data in China. ... They’re storing the encryption keys that decode that data in China, also,” Hawley said. “That means Beijing can get access to that data.”
Wray said this has become a cybersecurity worry for the FBI.
“It is something that we’re concerned about, in part because Chinese laws require a level of access that is unparalleled certainly in this country,” the FBI director said at the hearing.
Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, of Rhode Island, said at the subcommittee hearing that past meetings about safeguarding the information of Americans have seen their intent eclipsed by technology.
“Private platforms had more data on Americans than the most intrusive governments in the history of humankind, and we paid virtually no attention to it,” he said.