WSJ US BusinessCalls for TikTok Probe Widen, Adding Pressure on Biden

July 8, 20220
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WASHINGTON—Calls for an investigation into the security risks posed by the video app TikTok are widening, adding to pressure on President Biden to make good on his year-old promise to get tough on apps that could share Americans’ personal data with foreign adversaries.

The Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the panel’s top Republican sent a joint letter to the Federal Trade Commission this week urging an investigation of TikTok’s data-handling and other practices. TikTok’s parent, ByteDance Ltd., has its headquarters in Beijing.

The letter from Sens. Mark Warner (D., Va.) and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) followed reports by BuzzFeed that ByteDance’s employees in China have repeatedly accessed U.S. users’ personal data.

Sens. Mark Warner and Marco Rubio, wearing glasses, have called for an investigation of TikTok’s handling of data.

Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg News

“We ask that your agency immediately initiate [an] investigation on the basis of apparent deception by TikTok” concerning its data-handling and corporate- governance practices, said the lawmakers’ letter.

It called for the FTC to coordinate its work with any investigation that might be initiated by the Justice Department. The FTC and DOJ declined to comment.

TikTok said that it is making progress in sharply limiting access to its data on Americans.

“For two years, we’ve talked openly about our work to limit access to user data across regions,” a spokeswoman said. “As we’ve said repeatedly, TikTok has never shared U.S. user data with the Chinese government, nor would we if asked.”

A Wall Street Journal investigation found that TikTok only needs one important piece of information to figure out what you want: the amount of time you linger over a piece of content. Every second you hesitate or rewatch, the app is tracking you. Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann/The Wall Street Journal

The letter is the latest in a recent series of calls for action directed at the Biden administration by lawmakers and others as controversy over TikTok and its ability to gather—and share—U.S. users’ data builds again.

So far the White House has given few indications of what, if anything, it will do. It didn’t respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Mr. Biden in June 2021 revoked a series of Trump-era actions regarding TikTok, saying they were effectively unenforceable in the face of successful legal challenges.

The White House replaced the Trump actions with an executive order that promised a broad review of apps controlled by foreign adversaries to determine whether they posed a security threat to the U.S., as well as new policy measures as needed.

More than a year later, the Biden administration has little to show for its efforts, according to Republicans and others.

China-based employees of ByteDance, the owner of TikTok, have reportedly accessed U.S. users’ personal data.

Photo: Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

“With fresh reports of private, sensitive and nonpublic data on millions of U.S. users flowing into China, the administration should be moving at the speed [that] this national security threat demands,” Brendan Carr, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission, said Thursday.

“The administration should have been able to complete its national security review and taken final action already—we should not be in a position of playing a game of catch-up while sensitive U.S. user data keeps flowing into China,” he said.

Mr. Carr wrote his own letter late last month over TikTok concerns, calling on Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc. unit Google to boot the video-sharing app off their app stores, citing national-security concerns.

Mr. Carr said he has yet to get a response. Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment, and Google declined to comment.

Mr. Biden’s executive order on June 9, 2021, said apps such as TikTok “can access and capture vast swaths of information from users,” including personal data and proprietary business information, which is at risk of being shared with foreign adversaries such as China.

Mr. Biden’s order gave the Commerce Department, in coordination with other agencies, six months to come up with recommendations to address the risk. A department official said the agency “continues to work on rule making to address concerns” related to foreign apps.

For now, the administration appears to have pinned much of its hopes on a long-running negotiation with TikTok by a federal government panel, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, said James Lewis, director of the technology and public-policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.

That negotiation—expected to continue for several more months—seeks changes in TikTok’s systems to address Washington’s concerns about potential data sharing with the Chinese government.

The administration might face tougher criticism if Republicans take over the House or Senate in November.

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If that happens, “this is going to become much higher profile,” Mr. Lewis said. “The administration will need a good answer on what they’ve done.…[Republicans] have signaled they intend to make TikTok an issue.”

TikTok recently acknowledged that its engineers in locations outside the U.S., including China, can be granted access to U.S. user data, but only as needed and under strict controls.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) said that TikTok’s acknowledgment “confirms that our fears regarding [Chinese Communist Party] influence within the company are well-founded.”

Write to John D. McKinnon at john.mckinnon@wsj.com

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