Sen. Richard Blumenthal
Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Image: Senate Democrats / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Senators accuse TikTok executives of misleading Congress about data practices

TikTok has repeatedly allowed Americans’ private data to be stored and accessed in China, a letter released Wednesday by a bipartisan pair of senators alleges.

Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Marsha Blacburn (R-TN) point to recent press reports documenting a pattern of misleading assurances by TikTok executives that all American user data is stored only in the United States.

Citing a Forbes report alleging that the social media company has stored financial information of American “creators” in China — including Social Security numbers and tax data — the senators questioned why TikTok’s Head of Public Policy Michael Beckerman told Congress in October 2021 that U.S. user data is only stored in the U.S. and backed up in Singapore.

The Forbes report focused on TikTok’s so-called Creators Fund, which the magazine said promotes content from paying users who generate high traffic without disclosing to creators that their sensitive financial information is stored in China.

The senators also cited a New York Times report that revealed how employees of the platform routinely swap user data on an internal messaging app run by the China-based TikTok parent company ByteDance.

TikTok responded to the senators by saying that while data centers in the U.S. and Singapore serve as default storage locations, TikTok has also maintained that “as a global company with a global workforce, access to U.S. user data has historically been made available to employees based on their job function and demonstrated need to perform their roles.”

Chew’s statements

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew told the House Energy and Commerce Committee in March that user data “has always been stored in Virginia and Singapore in the past,” Blackburn and Blumenthal noted. The senators also pointed to a letter Chew sent last year claiming that TikTok has “long stored U.S. user data in data centers in the U.S. and Singapore, as well as in cloud-based services offered by AWS, the Google Cloud Platform, and Azure.”

Blumenthal and Blackburn also asserted that Chew deceived the Senate Commerce Committee when he said in a letter last year that 100 percent of U.S user data was being routed to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure.

“Nowhere in your response did you mention that TikTok stores user data in China, or that information about U.S. users — including sensitive information like photos and driver’s licenses or reports containing illegal materials like child sexual abuse materials — would be … accessible to ByteDance employees,” the new Blumenthal and Blackburn letter said.

The TikTok response to the senators also said the company has been “working earnestly” to bolster TikTok's data protection policies to “build confidence in our systems and controls in the United States.”

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Suzanne Smalley

Suzanne Smalley

is a reporter covering privacy, disinformation and cybersecurity policy for The Record. She was previously a cybersecurity reporter at CyberScoop and Reuters. Earlier in her career Suzanne covered the Boston Police Department for the Boston Globe and two presidential campaign cycles for Newsweek. She lives in Washington with her husband and three children.