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TikTok CEO says selling the app won't satisfy US security concerns

The government has reportedly told TikTok to divest itself from China-based parent company ByteDance.

VALERIE MACON / AFP

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew has claimed that, were parent ByteDance to sell the company, that alone wouldn't be enough to prevent it from scrutiny over security concerns. Chew made the assertion following reports this week (which TikTok has confirmed) that the US government has told TikTok to divest itself from ByteDance or face a national ban. "Divestment doesn’t solve the problem: a change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access," TikTok said in the wake of those reports.

Chew claimed that the US and other countries would still have problems with how the app handles user data were it to have a different owner. Officials have expressed fear that China will gain access to user data linked to their residents.

TikTok's CEO told The Wall Street Journal that, were Beijing-based ByteDance to sell the company, that won't provide more data protection beyond projects it's already working on. TikTok has promised to protect US user data from China by routing it through domestic Oracle servers and putting other safeguards in place, such as third-party oversight of the app's algorithms.

TikTok has spent billions of dollars on that plan, which it calls Project Texas. It has been working on the project over the last two years in an attempt to address US security concerns after former President Donald Trump attempted to force ByteDance to sell TikTok. The company recently announced a similar project for European user data.

Some officials are worried that ByteDance might be compelled to share data with the Chinese government or that China might demand changes to the content that TikTok's algorithms show to Americans. TikTok has claimed it wouldn't provide data to Chinese officials if they asked for assistance with spying — the company says it has not received such a request.

Meanwhile, a former employee of TikTok's trust and safety team has claimed there are significant flaws with Project Texas. They said it would still theoretically be possible for China to access US data as TikTok could still be linked to ByteDance's Chinese news app Toutiao. That said, reports suggest the person left TikTok months before Project Texas was finalized and that he may not know all the details of how it works.

“The idea behind Project Texas is it won’t matter what the Chinese law or any law says, because we’re taking US user data and we’re putting it out of their reach,” Chew said. “You’re talking about real concerns. I think these are the real solutions.”

Chew hasn't said whether ByteDance is open to selling its stake in TikTok. He has also dismissed the option of listing TikTok on the stock market as a publicly traded company any time soon, but that's something his company and ByteDance are mulling.

Next week, Chew will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He'll discuss TikTok's links to China as well as issues such as privacy and the app's impact on kids.

The US government and dozens of states have banned their employees from using TikTok on their federal- or state-owned devices. Canada and the European Commission have enacted similar bans in recent weeks, while the UK announced a similar measure earlier today.