TikTok still in trouble in the US: personal data "spied on" by Beijing?

The Senate is calling for an investigation into social media practices. The Chinese company defends itself: "We apply robust controls and authorization protocols". Meanwhile, MEP Marco Dreosto addresses the EU executive: "Clarifications are needed" 06 Jul 2022 Patrizia Licata journalist

TikTok's access to U.S. citizens' data is once again a concern for U.S. authorities: the Senate Intelligence Committee has asked federal trade commission (FTC) chair Lina Khan to open an investigation into social media and its Chinese parent company ByteDance motivated by what they call "repeated lack of transparency on corporate governance and data protection and use practices." The request signed by Democratic Senator Mark Warner (chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee) and Republican Marco Rubio (vice president) follows an article published by Buzzfeed stating that TikTok allows its software engineers and executives in China to access the personal information of US users. The alleged violation of privacy and security has also alarmed the world of Italian and European politics: Marco Dreosto, MEP of the League and member of the EU Parliament Commission on foreign interference in Europe, has submitted a question to the European Commission asking if he intends to ask for more clarification and transparency from TikTok. For almost two years TikTok has been in the crosshairs of the American authorities for issues related to "national security". Former President Donald Trump has asked the parent company ByteDance to sell TikTok for fear that US user data could end up in the hands of the Chinese government. The US is the largest market for the mini-video social network that has more than 1 billion total active users. Index of topics • TikTok reassures the US: "Robust data controls" • The US Data Security division convinces halfway • Question to the EU Commission on security and privacy • No TikTok Shop in Italy and EU (for now) TikTok reassures the US: "Robust data controls" TikTok's response to the US Senate was not long in coming. In the Media section of his English-language site, head of Public Policy for the Americas Michael Beckerman clarified the app's data practices, assuring that personal information is "subject to robust controls" and "safeguards such as encryption for certain data and authorization approval protocols under the supervision of our American team of security managers." The authorizations, the manager continued, are all the more restricted the more sensitive the data are.

"As a rule, our security teams want to minimize the number of people who have access to data and limit it to only those who need access to it for their work," Beckerman writes. "We have rules and procedures that limit internal access to user data by our employees, wherever they are, according to their needs. Like many global companies, TikTok has engineering teams around the world — Mountain View, London, Dublin, Singapore, and China — and these teams may need access to data for software engineering functions specifically related to their role. Such access is subject to a number of robust controls." The US Data Security division convinces halfway TikTok opened a new division called US Data Security (USDS) in May to better focus on strengthening governance and data protection practices, Beckerman says. The American manager continues: "We want to limit not only who accesses the data but also the points from which it is accessed. For this reason, in addition to directing all US traffic through Oracle cloud infrastructure, we are also working to increase our US-based computer engineering capacity, so as to avoid the need to transfer data between different regions. As we recently communicated to members of Congress, we are working towards a new system in which access to U.S. user data by anyone outside the USDS is limited and subject to robust access protocols with monitoring and oversight mechanisms by Oracle." Last week TikTok told U.S. senators that it is working on the final version of a deal with the Biden administration that will "fully protect user data and U.S. national security interests." TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew intervened in person to assure senators that he is working with Oracle to create "new advanced data security controls that we hope to finalize in the near future." Question to the EU Commission on security and privacy "The statements of the CEO of TikTok that 'Chinese employees of the platform can access the data of American users' concern both from a privacy point of view and from a geopolitical point of view," said Marco Dreosto, MEP of the League. "TikTok is directly controlled by the Chinese government, hostile government and country considered a challenge by NATO's latest 'strategic concept'. Knowing that potentially employees of the social platform could have access to European user data – including sensitive data – is a cause for concern. That is why I have put a question to the European Commission asking if it intends to ask For more clarification and transparency from TikTok and if it is aware of China's intelligence data collection activities. We cannot let our guard down when we talk about China and cybersecurity. Beijing has proven to be highly unreliable and a hostile actor and we cannot underestimate it even when it comes to social media and the spread of disinformation and propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party." No TikTok Shop in Italy and EU (for now) Separately TikTok has clarified its e-commerce strategy after rumors circulated about the renunciation of activating the function for online purchases in the EU and US markets. This is TikTok Shop, active in Asia (China, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam) and launched last year in the United Kingdom. "We have not paused or delayed the launch of TikTok Shop in other European markets, including Italy, France, Germany or Spain," a company spokesperson said. On TikTok Shop influencers can broadcast live by selling products through an orange trash can clickable on the app's screen. But, the Financial Times reported, the initiative has encountered quite a few problems. The company replies instead that "our goal has been and remains to make Tiktok Shop a success in the UK, together with the merchants and brands we are working with" and adds that, "although the future international expansion of TikTok Shop may have been discussed in the abstract or as a long-term goal, there have never been any concrete plans for the launch in European markets in the first half of this year." According to the FT, on the contrary, TikTok had planned to launch the feature in Germany, France, Italy and Spain in the first half of this year, before expanding to the US in 2022, but expansion plans would be abandoned after the UK project failed to meet targets and influencers abandoned the program.