An executive for the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok repeatedly dodged questions about whether the company is sharing U.S. user data with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during a Senate hearing on Wednesday.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) asked TikTok’s chief operating officer, Vanessa Pappas, whether the company has ever shared data with the CCP. Hawley’s questions come after TikTok admitted China-based employees could access U.S. user data.
At one point during the hearing, Hawley asked Pappas if the company had shared user data with the CCP to which she replied, “we will never share data period.”
“My question was in the past tense,” Hawley interjected. “Has TikTok ever shared data with the Chinese Communist Party.”
“We have never shared data with the Chinese government, correct,” she replied.
“With the Chinese Communist Party?” Hawley asked again.
“Yes, correct,” Pappas said.
“Have you ever shared it with the members of the Chinese Communist Party?” Hawley asked.
“I wouldn’t be able to verify that,” Pappas said.
After Pappas said she could not verify political affiliations of TikTok’s employees, she later said, “There are no CCP members” among TikTok’s leadership teams in the U.S. and Singapore.
“So you do know that,” Hawley replied. “But you’re telling me that you don’t know if there are any [CCP] members who are employed by TikTok or ByteDance — members of the Chinese Communist Party.”
“Senator, I’m happy to share that we are putting access controls. . .” Pappas began.
“That’s not my question,” Hawley interrupted. “My question is are there any TikTok employees or ByteDance employees who are members of the Chinese Communist Party, yes or no?”
“I know that everyone who makes a strategic decision at this platform is not a member of the CCP,” she said.
“Okay, it’s interesting to me that you’re quite confident that anyone who can make a strategic decision, how many people is that? Hawley asked.
Pappas repeatedly insisted she’s certain that TikTok’s leadership team has no CCP members but couldn’t speak to the thousands of employees working for the company or its parent company ByteDance.
Hawley then brought up a recent report, indicating around 300 TikTok and ByteDance employees either previously worked or still working for the Chinese government or Chinese state-run media companies. As Hawley raised this issue, Pappas reiterated that she could not confirm the political affiliations of the company’s employees but could assure that TikTok’s leadership team does not have CCP members.
During the hearing, Pappas also reiterated that China-based TikTok employees could access U.S. user data and “we’re working on the access controls to minimize that data access.”
“So your testimony is that you do have TikTok employees based in China, who do have access to U.S. user data, but you’re confident that none of them are members of the Chinese Communist Party and ever accessed it?” Hawley asked.
Pappas said “anyone who has access to U.S. user data has and does so to perform daily duties” such as site management and performance or dealing with bugs in the app’s programming. “But we have strict controls in terms of who and how our data is accessed.
Hawley concluded his questions for Papas, stating “you have hundreds of employees with it appears access to U.S. user data that may very well be members of the Chinese Communist Party and you have no way to assure me that they don’t have access to our own to our citizens’ data and you won’t answer my question in a straight forward way about whether a CCP member has ever gained access or not.”