This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
When TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Thursday, he was asked a key question: Whether the Chinese government could use TikTok or its Beijing-based parent company ByteDance Ltd. to surveil Americans or obtain data about them.
Asia Fact Check Lab (AFCL) found no evidence to support that TikTok intentionally shared or plans to share user data with the Chinese government.
But TikTok’s subservient relationship to its parent company ByteDance — a Chinese company subjecting to Chinese laws – would create opportunities for the Chinese government to collect data about American users.
1. Can TikTok share data with China’s government？
Tiktok has stated several times that it has not shared data with China’s government, and company executives have further stated they would refuse to hand over any data to China if asked.
The Chinese government has enacted laws that require companies to cooperate with state authorities when asked to provide any information on matters relating to national security.
The 2017 Cybersecurity Law requires businesses to store select data in China and grants the government wide-ranging rights to check such data at their discretion. Various other laws that grant the state the right to collect information use ambiguous language and often include catch-all phrases that allow them to apply the law however they see fit.
“As a global company, the Platform is supported by certain entities within our corporate group, which are given limited remote access to Information We Collect as necessary to enable them to provide certain important functions.”
Therefore, TikTok can share data with Bytedance, which under Chinese law would be required to hand over data to the government if pressured.
2. Can TikTok’s US data be shared outside the U.S.?
“TikTok may transmit your data to its servers or data centers outside of the United States for storage and/or processing. Other entities with whom TikTok may share your data as described herein may be located outside of the United States.”
3. Can TikTok’s data be shared with law enforcement in China?
TikTok’s policy notes that different countries’ law enforcement may request data, and that the specific procedures of the request will vary from country to country.
“We may disclose any of the Information We Collect to respond to subpoenas, court orders, legal process, law enforcement requests, legal claims, or government inquiries, and to protect and defend the rights, interests, safety, and security of the Platform, our affiliates, users, or the public. We may also share any of the Information We Collect to enforce any terms applicable to the Platform, to exercise or defend any legal claims, and comply with any applicable law.”
China does not have an independent judiciary; law enforcement is subject to the government’s order. As Donald Clarke, a Chinese law specialist at George Washington University noted about a similar case with Chinese tech company Huawei’s threat to other countries’ data security, “The Chinese Party/state is not meaningfully constrained by Chinese law.”
Although TikTok has repeatedly said it has never shared data nor will share data with China’s government, there are reasonable concerns that it may do so.