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TikTok Chief Touts Customer Data-Privacy Initiatives

Shou Chew, TikTok CEO at an event in Singapore earlier in November / Bryan van der Beek. ByteDance unit has faced questions over influence o...

Shou Chew, TikTok CEO at an event in Singapore earlier in November / Bryan van der Beek.
ByteDance unit has faced questions over influence of Chinese government on how its video-sharing platform secures user data. TikTok Chief Executive Shou Chew said the video-sharing platform is taking greater steps to keep user data secure and that it needs to invest more in protecting young people from getting exposed to harmful content.

“We have very rigorous data-access protocols,” he said at the New York Times’s Dealbook Summit in New York on Wednesday, adding that TikTok, a unit of Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., chose Oracle Corp. as its cloud-infrastructure provider because the company has strong security controls. 

“In the future, we’re going to organize by moving the data to the Oracle data cloud infrastructure and only U.S. residents can access it,” he said. “This is a solution that no other company is trying to pursue.”  Mr. Chew also said no foreign government has ever asked TikTok for U.S. customer data. “If they did, we would say no,” he said, noting that all of TikTok’s user data is stored on servers in Virginia and Singapore.   

The popular short-form video platform has been under scrutiny in Washington, D.C., over some of its data practices. The Biden administration is currently working on a broad policy to secure data on apps based in countries such as China that are considered adversaries. TikTok is also negotiating with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., known as Cfius, a federal panel that reviews foreign investments for national security concerns, on a plan to secure the data of U.S. users.

TikTok, a unit of Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd. / Bryan van der Beek.
Earlier at the Times event, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said “there are legitimate national security concerns” about TikTok, without citing specifics. Keeping young people safe when using TikTok is another priority for the platform, said Mr. Chew, a father of two young children. Though TikTok has parental controls and restrictions for users under the age of 13, Mr. Chew said that hasn’t prevented the proliferation of videos touting dangerous activities such as teen vaping and unhealthy dieting. “We have a responsibility to invest more” in protection measures, he said. 

TikTok, which is five years old and has more than a billion users around the globe, is widely described as addictive because of its algorithm that recommends content. Mr. Chew said that the technology simply matches users with content that reflects their behavior on the platform, such as how much time they spend watching a video, if they like or share it—and vice versa. 

“It’s just math,” he said. “If you don’t like cats, you won’t see cats.” Looking ahead, Mr. Chew said TikTok hopes to expand outside of short-form video content and unite users with similar interests as the company’s user base continues to expand.  “We want to unleash human creativity through connecting people and the discovery of new information,” he said.

At a nearly three-hour Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing in September, Democratic and Republican lawmakers pressed the company over issues of access that Chinese employees have to U.S. user data and whether any employees had ties to the Chinese Communist Party. 

“We think that all data collected related to Americans and then accessed in China is a problem,” Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, said during the hearing. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, said: “There’s a real risk that TikTok could alter its algorithm to promote or censor content on Beijing’s behalf.”

TikTok Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Pappas said at the hearing that the company is committed to the security of its U.S. users and is working to reach an agreement with Cfius.

“Our final agreement with the U.S. government will satisfy all national security concerns,” she said. “As it relates to access and controls, we are going to go above and beyond.”