(NewsNation) — On Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will testify on Capitol Hill in what is expected to be a contentious hearing about privacy and cybersecurity concerns on the social media app whose parent company is based in China.
TikTok — the short-form video platform that boasts more than 150 million monthly active users in the U.S. — has become a battleground in the geopolitical power struggle between the United States and China.
American lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called for tighter restrictions on a company they fear could turn important data over to the Chinese government. In response, China’s foreign ministry has accused the U.S. of spreading disinformation about TikTok’s potential security risks.
So what are the fears and are they legitimate?
Why are U.S. lawmakers concerned about TikTok?
TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is headquartered in Beijing, China. For that reason, U.S. officials are worried the social media app could be forced by the Chinese government to turn over personal data about American users.
TikTok has long maintained that it stores all U.S. user data within the United States and said it has never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content. The company pointed out its U.S. moderation team is based in the United States and said it isn’t influenced by any foreign government.
Despite those assurances, in December, ByteDance said it fired four employees who accessed data on two journalists while they were attempting to track down the source of a leaked report about the company. The employees had also obtained data on a small number of U.S. users, the New York Times reported.
Around the same time, Congress passed a bill banning TikTok on all government devices in an effort to protect sensitive government information. More than half of U.S. states have similar bans in place.
Is my data at risk?
The FBI, as well as the Federal Communications Commission, have warned that user data on TikTok could be shared with the Chinese government. But the threat extends beyond data sharing, according to FBI Director Chris Wray.
Wray fears the Chinese could use the app’s recommendation algorithm to manipulate the content users see. Such a move may influence the American public and expose it to propaganda or other misinformation.
Nearly half of Americans (49%) support a national ban on foreign technologies such as TikTok, a recent Quinnipiac Poll found. Younger Americans, 18-34 years old, were the least likely to support a ban, with 63% opposed.
Is TikTok different than other apps?
TikTok is far from the only app that collects user data, but some studies have shown the company harvests more data than comparable social media apps.
A January 2022 analysis by URL Genius found TikTok allowed more potential third-party trackers to gather data than apps like Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram. Once that data is collected, it’s hard to know how it’s used, the report noted.
Internet 2.0, a cybersecurity organization, published a separate study in July 2022 that found TikTok’s data harvesting to be “excessive.” The app collects information like users’ location every hour, has access to calendar and contacts, and has code that collects detailed device information on Android, the report found.
But the top concern for U.S. officials is who can access the data and how it could be used. Unlike other U.S.-based companies, many are worried China’s authoritarian government could access American data because ByteDance is based in Beijing.
How has TikTok responded?
In an attempt to assuage concerns about Chinese government interference, TikTok moved its U.S. user data to Oracle’s cloud platform in June.
This week, the company “refreshed” its community guidelines ahead of Thursday’s Congressional hearing. Those guidelines, which take effect April 21, included updated rules on “synthetic media” like deepfake videos that can imitate people without their consent. The updated policy also clarified the company’s position on election messaging and said it does not allow “paid political promotion” or “political advertising.”
In a video posted Tuesday on TikTok, Chew emphasized the platform’s importance for small businesses, pointing out that five million American businesses use the app to reach their customers.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.