Lawmakers from both parties turned up the heat on TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew in a high-stakes hearing with the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday about the safety and security of the immensely popular app.
“To the American people watching today, hear this: TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you and manipulate what you see and exploit for future generations,” said Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.
Rodgers asked Chew to say “with 100% certainty” that neither Chinese authorities nor employees of TikTok parent company ByteDance can use the app to spy on Americans, or promote content favorable to Chinese interests.
Chew said TikTok does not promote or remove content at the request of Chinese authorities. He said the app is “free from any manipulation from any government.”
Rodgers shot back: “If you can’t say it 100% certain, I take that as a no.”
While U.S. officials have not offered any evidence that Chinese authorities have accessed the information of Americans on the app, national security experts say it is a real possibility, even if it remains theoretical. Likewise, the Chinese government has not been shown to have ever influenced the app’s recommendation algorithm, though experts also say it is hypothetically possible.
During his first-ever appearance on Capitol Hill, Chew faced a range of hostile questions about TikTok, the most-downloaded app in the world in 2022, and ByteDance. His appearance comes soon after White House officials have told TikTok that it must divest from ByteDance, or face a severe punishment in the U.S., including the possibility of a ban.
Top White House officials, and a growing chorus of bipartisan lawmakers, are continuing to view TikTok as a threat, fearing that China’s authoritarian regime could use TikTok data to spy on, or blackmail, the millions of Americans who use the app every day.
And even though there is no evidence that the Chinese government has attempted to gain access to TikTok data, the company has admitted that employees in China accessed the data of U.S. users who were journalists reporting on company leaks — an incident now being investigated by Justice Department.
Members of both parties asked about “spying” and “surveillance”
During the hearing, Chew was grilled about whether the app shares data with the Chinese government. Many lawmakers used words like “spying” and “surveillance” -characterizations Chew disagreed with.
When asked if TikTok employees can spy on or target people in the U.S., Chew didn’t answer directly.
“We will protect U.S. user data and file it all from all unwanted foreign access is a commitment that we’ve given to the committee,” he said.
Chew underscored the company’s focus on its $1.5 billion restructuring known as “Project Texas,” which taps Austin software giant Oracle to host and oversee all of American users’ data. The plan involves establishing a new entity and hiring thousands of employees focused on data security.
Chew admitted on Thursday that until Project Texas is complete, Beijing-based employees of TikTok are able to access U.S. user data, but that under the restructuring, a digital firewall would prevent employees in China have accessing Americans’ personal information.
NPR’s Bobby Allyn contributed to this report