TikTok chief admits Chinese parent company has access to data

Shou Zi Chew - Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Shou Zi Chew - Jacquelyn Martin/AP

TikTok’s chief executive has admitted that users' data can be accessed by its Chinese parent company as it battles a potential ban in the United States.

In a bruising US Congress hearing, Shou Zi Chew told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that staff in China currently have the ability to see TikTok users’ information.

He said: “We rely on global interoperability, and we have employees in China, so yes, the Chinese engineers do have access to global data.”

In a confrontational session, the TikTok chief failed to win over members of Congress, who are considering whether to give Joe Biden powers to ban the app.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Republican chairman, said: “Your platform should be banned. TikTok is a weapon by the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] to spy on you, manipulate what you see, and exploit future generations.”

Congressman Neal Dunn said: “We don’t find you credible on these things,” prompting Mr Chew to complain: “You have given me no time to answer these questions; I reject these characterisations.”

Mr Chew, who is based in Singapore, told members of Congress that he had not spoken to a Chinese government official since taking charge two years ago, and that he had “no evidence” that TikTok users’ data had been accessed by the Chinese government.

When asked if ByteDance, TikTok's parent company, has been able to spy on staff, he said: ”I don't think that spying is the right way to describe it.”

Mr Chew said ByteDance employees in China will not have access to US users’ data by the end of the year, when it will complete a $1.5bn (£1.2bn) plan to move data to IT giant Oracle. The company has not made equivalent promises about UK and European users’ data.

The US government has told TikTok that it will ban it in the US if it is not spun off from its Chinese shareholders.

On Thursday, China threatened to block a forced sale of the app, saying it would “firmly oppose” the Biden administration’s plan to take the viral video app out of Chinese hands.

The commerce ministry said such a move would hit international investors’ confidence in the US. “If the news is true, China will firmly oppose it,” a spokesman for the ministry said.

Mr Chew repeatedly refused to answer questions on whether he agrees that the Chinese government represses China’s Uyghur minority.

In response to TikTok being banned from government devices, he said he did not believe any social media apps should be on official phones.

On Thursday, Parliament said it would remove TikTok from all phones issued by the House of Commons and House of Lords, and block it from Wi-Fi networks, following a ban on Government devices last week.