Senators urge Justice Department to open investigation into TikTok, Zoom

Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) on Thursday urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) to open investigations into social media platform TikTok and video conferencing service Zoom, citing concerns over potential security threats from ties to the Chinese government. 

In a letter to Justice Department Assistant Attorney General John Demers, Hawley and Blumenthal wrote that they were “extremely concerned” that Zoom and TikTok had potentially disclosed private American information to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and censored content on the CCP’s behalf. 

“As tens of millions of Americans turn to Zoom and TikTok during the COVID-19 pandemic, few know that the privacy of their data and their freedom of expression is under threat due to the relationship of these companies to the Chinese government,” the senators wrote. “Of particular concern, both Zoom and TikTok have sought to conceal and distract from their meaningful ties to China, holding themselves out as American companies.”

TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, which is headquartered in Beijing, though TikTok is taking steps to move storage of American data to the U.S. this year. 

Zoom is headquartered in the U.S., but the senators cited a report from Citizen Lab that found Zoom was developed through three companies in China that employ at least 700 workers to develop software. 

“This concealment is alarming – Chinese tech firms are notoriously bound to draconian intelligence laws, media regulations, and extrajudicial pressure that compels them to censor and spy for China’s state security services,” the senators wrote. 

They added that “even when subsidiaries, product teams, or servers are located outside of the country, when their engineers or management are based in China, sensitive personal data is still within the reach of Chinese intelligence.”

A spokesperson for Zoom, which has seen huge growth in usage during the COVID-19 pandemic, pushed back against the concerns raised by the senators.

“Zoom is an American company, founded and headquartered in California, incorporated in Delaware, and publicly traded on NASDAQ (ZM),” the spokesperson told The Hill in a statement. “We take user privacy, security, and trust extremely seriously, and as always, we welcome conversations with officials about our global business practices and policies.”

Zoom has taken steps to enhance its security following a wave of privacy concerns that came with the increase in usage during the pandemic. The company rolled out a beta version of its end-to-end encryption service for both free and paying users this month among other enhancements. 

A spokesperson for TikTok also pushed back against the concerns of the senators.

TikTok is working to be the industry leader in transparency and accountability, and our Transparency and Accountability Centers give unprecedented access to our algorithms, content moderation, and data security practices,” a TikTok spokesperson told The Hill late Thursday. “We regularly release transparency reports that detail the government requests we receive and the content we remove.”

The spokesperson emphasized that “our content and moderation policies are led by our US-based team in California and aren’t influenced by any foreign government, and we publish information about how our recommendation system works. TikTok US user data is stored in the US with a backup in Singapore with strict controls on employee access. We’ve never shared TikTok user data with the Chinese government, and would not do so if asked. Period.”

TikTok has been under fire by the Trump administration and Congress in recent weeks, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying last month that the administration was considering banning Chinese-owned apps including TikTok, citing security concerns. 

A bill banning TikTok use on federal devices was passed by the House last week, while a group of Republican senators raised concerns earlier this week that the CCP might use TikTok to interfere in the 2020 U.S. elections. 

New TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive, announced Wednesday that the company would make its code public for experts to examine, as the company launched an effort to push back strongly against “rumors and misinformation” around its ties to China. 

The concerns over both companies have come on the heels of increasing geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China over the pandemic, China’s policies towards Hong Kong and espionage concerns, among other issues. 

The senators requested that the Justice Department also provide a briefing to Congress on security concerns around Zoom and TikTok. 

“We believe that it is imperative that the Department of Justice investigate and determine whether Zoom and TikTok’s business relationships, data handling practices, and operational connections to China pose a risk to Americans,” the senators wrote.

-Updated to include a statement from TikTok

Tags Josh Hawley Mike Pompeo

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