Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is calling on the Treasury Department to launch a thorough review of troubling allegations about popular Chinese-owned short video-sharing platform TikTok that was recently brought to his attention by a whistleblower. In a letter written to Janet Yellen, the Secretary of the Treasury on March 8, Hawley stated that the allegations are of major concern and are “deeply troubling” as they appear to contradict the public statements being made by the senior executives of TikTok and its Beijing-based parent company ByteDance with regards to how they handle the data of U.S. users.
There is cause for concern among lawmakers, as there have been revelations through leaked recordings that Chinese engineers have been accessing the U.S. data obtained by the platform in January. This has sparked great interest in Congress.
TikTok claimed, through its COO Vanessa Pappas, that they had strict controls preventing China from accessing U.S data. On the contrary, the whistleblower described these so-called access controls as being superficial at best, stating that talented hackers could easily bypass them. This, according to Hawley, is making it possible for TikTok and ByteDance employees to effortlessly switch between Chinese and US data by using a proprietary tool called Dorado, and the whistleblower has referred to it as being much like flipping a light switch. The whistleblower also cited the existence of Aeolus, an approval-based tool that allows China-based employees to gain authorized access to U.S. data.
The allegations raise concerns of close coordination between TikTok and ByteDance and have manifested fears that a complete ban of TikTok in the United States might be necessary. Hawley penned his letter while citing the whistleblower, describing how the companies in question utilize proprietary softwares that they designed in China. This ensures limited foreign scrutiny thus enabling Chinese engineers to create software backdoors.
Hawley has requested information that will offer greater insight into what was shared by TikTok with the foreign transaction review panel (CFIUS). The Senator wrote, “I have seen first-hand China-based engineers flipping over to non-China datasets and creating scheduled tasks to backup, aggregate, and analyze data.”. “TikTok and ByteDance are functionally the same company. They use the same data analysis tools and chat apps, and managers are in constant contact,” he added.
TikTok responded to the allegations by stating that the whistleblower may have been misinformed as they argued that the tools described were primarily analytic tools without any direct access to data. The platform has been attempting to regain favor and legitimacy in the wake of the allegations and planned to partner with US computing giant Oracle through a program it launched called “Project Texas.” This partnership aims to ensure that every line of code will be inspected, tested, and vetted by multiple third parties to guarantee there are no back doors.
The TikTok ban has been gaining momentum in the United States with threats from Beijing gaining global recognition, as it attempts to challenge the liberal democratic world order. Recently the Foreign Affairs Committee voted to endorse a bill aimed at targeting TikTok. Moreover, a significant number of states have moved to ban TikTok from the government’s devices, and the same has been enforced at the federal level under a $1.65 trillion dollar spending bill passed late in 2020.
Recently, in a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing, FBI Director Christopher Wray spoke on how the platform poses national security and privacy concerns and could be utilized as a tool by the Chinese Communist Party to manipulate and spread fake information among Americans. TikTok, with over 113 million users each month in the U.S, posses a national security threat, according to Wray.
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