Two US senators on Wednesday requested American intelligence officials investigate Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok for potential national security threats, Reuters reported on Friday.

Why it matters: The virally popular app, owned by Beijing-based tech firm Bytedance, is attracting growing scrutiny in overseas markets for content censorship and data protection procedures.

  • Bytedance has repeatedly denied the accusations, saying that TikTok stores American user data in the United States and that the Chinese government does not require its content to be censored.

“Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law… TikTok does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China. We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked.”

—TikTok in a statement on Friday

Details: US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator Tom Cotton asked in a letter on Wednesday to Joseph Macguire, acting director of national intelligence, for an assessment of the security risks posed by TikTok.

  • The senators voiced concerns about the app’s collection of user data and whether the Chinese government censors content viewed by US users.
  • “With over 110 million downloads in the US alone, TikTok is a potential counter-intelligence threat we cannot ignore,” the senators said in the letter.
  • The letter also hinted that TikTok could be targeted by foreign influence campaigns and urged investigators to look into the issue of TikTok’s collection of user location-related data and other sensitive personal information.
  • TikTok said in the statement that it has a dedicated technical team focused on adhering to robust cybersecurity policies, data privacy, and security practices.
  • “We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government; TikTok does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future,” said the company.

US official presses for review of Bytedance’s Musical.ly acquisition

Context: TikTok said last week that it plans to hire two former US congressmen as part of an external team to review its content moderation policies, including child safety, hate speech, misinformation, and bullying.

  • US Senator Marco Rubio earlier this month requested that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) review Bytedance’s 2017 acquisition of short video app Musical.ly, which was later rebranded as TikTok, citing concerns that Bytedance apps are increasingly used to censor content.
  • The Guardian reported last month that TikTok instructs its moderators to censor videos that are deemed politically sensitive by the Chinese government, citing leaked documents detailing the platform’s guidelines.
  • TikTok, meanwhile, may be losing its appeal. New data show there is an unprecedented slowdown in the app’s quarterly downloads, which fell 4% year on year to 177 million in the quarter ended September, according to mobile data provider Sensor Tower.

Wei Sheng is a Beijing-based reporter covering hardware, smartphone, and telecommunications, along with regulations and policies related to the China tech scene. Before joining TechNode, he wrote about... More by Wei Sheng

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