The head of TikTok Australian was questioned in a tense interview in which he distanced the company from its ties to China amid a growing debate over banning the popular app.
Chief operating officer Lee Hunter said the video-sharing platform would not give information to the Chinese government if asked, but did not have an answer when asked whether the Communist Party or its intelligence agencies could simply take it.
Hackers have recently revealed that the app can collect incredibly detailed information about its users, from their location data to their keystrokes, facial mapping, voice recognition, and information about other apps, such as calendar entries.
‘Our parent company, ByteDance, is incorporated outside of China. I think what we see out there is a lot of association with China that’s just not true,” Hunter told 60 Minutes reporter Amelia Adams in an interview that aired on Sunday.
“We are not connected to the CCP… Australian users, your TikTok data is located in the US and Singapore.”
TikTok has around seven million Australian users and has been revealed to be collecting vast amounts of user data.
Ms Adams responded to his argument by saying it was “untrue” given that TikTok’s recent submission to a government investigation said he was “very proud of his Chinese heritage.”
“Look, we are not affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party and I think this is something that needs to be corrected.”
‘But your parent company is?’ said Mrs. Adams.
A recent submission to an Australian Senate committee looking at foreign interference via social media identified senior ByteDance executives who had strong ties to the CCP.
The presentation was presented by Rachel Lee, Prudence Luttrell, Matthew Johnson, and John Garnaut, who are experts in the field.
“It’s really important that Australians understand that what’s most important to us is keeping your user data safe and secure and respecting your privacy,” Hunter said.
But Ms. Adams pressed: ‘If the CCP or someone from the Chinese government or national intelligence asked for that data?’
‘We wouldn’t give it to him,’ he replied.
‘Well, they wouldn’t ask you, would they take it?’ said Mrs. Adams.
Hunter didn’t seem to have an answer.
“Well, here we are dealing with hypothetical concerns that would apply to any Chinese national working for any company based outside of China,” he said.
“I think it borders on xenophobia and I think that’s concerning, I think we need to be careful how we work with China.
‘TikTok is not China, we are an entertainment platform’.
Amelia Adams pressed Mr. Hunter on whether the company could prevent the CCP or Chinese intelligence agencies from simply taking the collected data.
A ban on TikTok would be a boon for rivals Snap and Meta after the ByteDance-owned company proved to be the app of choice for connected social media users.
Australian Senator James Paterson is expected to lead the company’s Australian executives in parliament as he examines how social media platforms could be used for foreign interference.
“It has nothing to do with the ethnicity of the people who work or run TikTok,” he said.
‘I couldn’t care less about that. I care about the government they are bound to and whether it is the Chinese Communist Party or any other authoritarian system, we should be concerned about that.’
“It’s a very powerful player in our region and that means we have to see this in a different light through a national security lens.”
“Otherwise, we are being very accommodating.”
Senator James Paterson is expected to lead TikTok Australia executives to Parliament as the government decides whether to follow other countries and ban the app for defense, intelligence and government employees.
TikTok previously wrote to Senator Paterson to reveal that TikTok employees, including those in China, could access the data of the app’s seven million Australian users despite the data being stored in the US and Singapore. .
And that data is amazingly complete.
Thomas Perkins, an American software analyst, cracked the TikTok code for Australian cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0
“Then we went line by line and compared to see if their public statements matched what the app was doing,” said their boss, Rob Potter.
“They said they did not collect GPS location data and we saw that they were collecting a lot of location data.”
“We saw that it was accessing the user’s calendar to see what other things were going on in their journal.”
“One of the big things we saw was that TikTok specifically said that they don’t have user data in China.
“And we saw that when we studied the app, it regularly connected to Chinese servers.
‘When TikTok says we don’t have a server in mainland China. That is definitely not true.
Australia is expected to soon follow a number of other countries in banning the app for those in the government, intelligence and defense industries.
In the US Congress, the White House, the US military, and more than half of the US states have already banned the use of the app from official devices.
Similar bans have been imposed elsewhere, including Denmark, Canada, Great Britain, France and New Zealand, as well as in the European Union.
Pressure is being put on TikTok to get new ownership or lose access to the huge US market.
In a grueling five-hour hearing on Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faced unrelenting questioning from combative US lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum about the app’s ties to China and its danger to teens.
“Let me say this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent for China or any other country,” said Chew, a 40-year-old Harvard-educated former banker and native of Singapore.
“Let me say this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew told the House Armed Services Committee hearing.
Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) speaks as TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies before a US House Committee on Commerce and Energy hearing titled ‘TikTok: How Congress Can Safeguard America’s data privacy and protecting children from harm online’
However, the company has been dogged by claims that its Chinese ownership means user data could end up in the hands of the Chinese government or could be used to promote narratives favorable to the country’s communist leaders.
In 2019, The Guardian reported that TikTok was instructing its moderators to censor videos that mentioned Tiananmen Square and included images unfavorable to the Chinese government. The platform says it has since changed its moderation practices.
Committee members also showed a large number of TikTok videos encouraging users to harm themselves and commit suicide. Many questioned why the platform’s Chinese counterpart, Douyin, does not carry the same potentially dangerous content as the American product.
Chew responded that it depends on the laws of the country where the app operates. He said the company has around 40,000 moderators that track harmful content and an algorithm that flags material.
Rep. Earl L. ‘Buddy’ Carter (R-GA) asked Chew if China’s equivalent of TikTok hosts ‘death challenge’ videos aimed at children like the US version.
Concerns about the platform rose when ByteDance admitted in December that it fired four employees who accessed data from two journalists and people connected to them last summer while trying to discover the source of a leaked report about the company.
At the center of much of the fear about TikTok is a 2017 Chinese law that requires local companies to hand over personal data to the state if it is relevant to national security.
There is no evidence that TikTok has handed over such data, but fears abound due to the vast amount of user data it collects.
Beijing itself denied on Friday that it would ask Chinese companies to hand over data collected abroad, saying it “attaches great importance to data privacy protection.”
China “has never and will not require companies or individuals to collect or provide data located in a foreign country,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said at a regular briefing.
“So far, the US government has not provided any evidence that TikTok poses a threat to its national security,” Mao added.