Nebulous answers from TikTok CEO rile congressional panel

(The Center Square) – U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina are among those on Capitol Hill leading the charge against TikTok, with both on Thursday highlighting ways the app threatens national security.

Lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee grilled TikTok CEO Shou Chew over data security and other issues. Hudson tweeted, “As Fort Bragg’s congressman, I have serious concerns about the opportunities TikTok gives the CCP to access non-public sensitive data – including location information, emails, photos – from the homes of our men and women in uniform.”

CCP is the acronym for Chinese Communist Party.

He also posted video of portions of his exchange with Chew during a five-hour meeting.

Hudson described the wildly popular video sharing app as a “massive surveillance program collecting vast swaths of personal data from more than a billion people worldwide” and highlighted how he believes it’s data collection is threatening national security.

“This includes data from personal devices of federal employees, contractors, and most concerning, U.S. military service members and their families in places like Fort Bragg in North Carolina,” he said. “This personal data and location information can be harvested and could be used for blackmail, to conduct espionage and possibly even to reveal troop movements.”

The hearing followed calls from a growing number of lawmakers who want the Biden administration to impose a federal ban on TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order in January to ban the app on state owned devices.

Legislation moving through the General Assembly would codify the governor’s move and expand the ban to include state networks and other apps, including the Chinese messaging app WeChat and encrypted messaging service Telegram.

Hudson suggested in Thursday’s committee hearing that TikTok should be banned from both government devices and personal devices of military members, and expressed concern about TikTok linking to home Wi-Fi networks.

“While the Department of Defense and most agencies have banned TikTok on government issued devices, I believe more needs to be done at the command level to urge troops and their dependents to erase from their personal devices and keep them off home Wi-Fi,” he said. “Having the app banned on a device in one pocket, but downloaded on your device in the other doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”

Hudson pressed Chew on whether TikTok on one device connected to home Wi-Fi can access other devices, but the CEO couldn’t answer the question directly.

“We do not do anything that is beyond any industry norms. I believe the answer to your question is no, but it could be technical. Let me get back to you,” Chew said.

The elusive response was one of many that frustrated lawmakers from both sides of the aisle demanding answers about how the company manages its user data, and the app’s impact on children.

“You have been one of the few people to unite this committee,” Rep. Toney Cárdenas, D-Calif., told Chew. “You remind me a lot of Mark Zuckerberg. When he came here, I said to my staff, ‘He reminds me of Fred Astaire – good dancer with words.’ And you are doing the same today. A lot of your answers are a bit nebulous; they’re not yes or no.”

Tillis, who has co-sponsored two bills to rein in “the China-based spyware app,” weighed in on the debate, as well, pointing to members of the North Carolina delegation who promote the app.

“China is one of the biggest geopolitical threats America has ever faced. It’s beyond reckless for members of Congress to still be encouraging their constituents to use TikTok despite knowing the Chinese Communist Party is mining all their personal info,” Tillis said. “Protecting Americans from the CCP is more important than getting views. I call on all members of Congress to lead by example and stop using it.”

A Tillis release linked to news reports detailing Democratic North Carolina Rep. Jeff Jackson’s TikTok prowess. Jackson has 1.4 million followers on the platform, where he posts video clips that regularly garner millions of views.

Jackson has defended his use of TikToK as a means to reach a wider audience, though he contends his posts come from a dedicated personal phone, and not his government-issued or personal devices.

Jackson has said he believes a change in ownership is necessary at TikTok, and would back a ban if that doesn’t happen, echoing a similar ultimatum from the Biden administration.

Other members of Congress generally acknowledged to leverage the app include Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-NY, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-WI, Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT.

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