The allegations occur as TikTok, which is owned by Chinese technology company ByteDance, faces scrutiny for national security concerns and reported data privacy breaches. Hawley said in a letter sent to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Tuesday that employees, including members of the Chinese Communist Party who are on the company’s payroll, can allegedly switch between Chinese and American data with “nothing more than the click of a button.”
Workers allegedly use several proprietary software tools created in China that reduce foreign scrutiny and allow engineers to “insert software backdoors,” Hawley described on the basis of the unnamed whistleblower’s account. One such tool allegedly permits employees to access American data with the approval of a manager and a dataset owner.
“I have seen first-hand China-based engineers flipping over to non-China datasets and creating scheduled tasks to backup, aggregate, and analyze data,” the whistleblower told Hawley. “TikTok and ByteDance are functionally the same company. They use the same data analysis tools and chat apps, and managers are in constant contact.”
Hawley noted that TikTok has repeatedly claimed that members of the Chinese Communist Party cannot access American user data but said “it seems more and more likely that they do” with the new accusations about the company’s activities. The lawmaker cited an earlier report from Forbes which said ByteDance planned to track the location of specific American citizens.
Yellen serves as chair of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a board with nine cabinet-level officials tasked with reviewing the national security risks of foreign ventures. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CA) and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) contended last month that Yellen should force ByteDance to jettison operations for TikTok within the United States.
Beyond the prohibition of TikTok on federal devices issued by President Joe Biden and similar actions from multiple state governments, several lawmakers have urged regulators and technology companies to limit access to the platform. Renewed controversy over the site occurs after at least one Chinese surveillance balloon recently traversed the continental United States: the vessel crossed Montana, the location of many defense assets and missile silos, then traveled over states such as Kansas and Missouri before the object was shot down by the American military off the coast of the Carolinas.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Sen. John Thune (R-SD) unveiled the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology Act, abbreviated as the RESTRICT Act, earlier this week to grant the Commerce Department authority to review information communications and technology transactions that pose undue risk to American economic and national security.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said he fully supports the measure.
“This legislation would empower the United States government to prevent certain foreign governments from exploiting technology services operating in the United States in a way that poses risks to Americans’ sensitive data and our national security,” he said. “This bill presents a systematic framework for addressing technology-based threats to the security and safety of Americans.”