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Congress grills TikTok's CEO about security of user data

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Deceptive, evasive, unconvincing - these are some of the ways lawmakers here in Washington today described the CEO of TikTok. He was the sole witness in a five-hour hearing on whether Americans' data on the popular video-sharing app is safe.

NPR's Bobby Allyn joins me to discuss how the CEO's performance might affect the future of TikTok. Hey, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: It sounds like a rocky day for the TikTok CEO. How did he go about defending the app before Congress?

ALLYN: Yeah. So his name is Shou Chew. He's the CEO of TikTok, as you mentioned. And he told lawmakers that the Chinese government has never requested the data of Americans. And he made this point so many times, it's hard to count. When asked yes-or-no questions, he wouldn't bite. And instead, he would recite a fact. Lawmakers got really fed up with him. They kept interrupting him. They kept scoffing at him. They were scolding him. It was pretty intense.

KELLY: How did he take that?

ALLYN: Well, he mostly maintained his composure and didn't lose his temper, which I thought was pretty impressive. At one point, he said he just isn't able to prove a negative, then cracked a little smile and said, which I've been trying to do for hours now.

A little bit about Chew - he was born and raised in Singapore, where he was an Army reservist before becoming an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. And now, of course, he leads TikTok. And he did have some fans in the room. There was an audience of TikTok influencers who rallied before the hearing to show support for the app. The company says it now has more than 150 million users in the U.S. That's half - almost half of the U.S. population. It's incredible. And Chew said TikTok has a company restructuring plan in place to build a firewall between the U.S. and China.

KELLY: Yeah, that's what I want to ask about. Did we get details on that, and how did lawmakers receive this plan?

ALLYN: Not well would be a nice way to put it. I mean, Chew came with his three or four talking points, but lawmakers just kept saying this sounds deceptive; it seems like you're dodging questions. And the really big sticking point, Mary Louise, was this - this new firewall that TikTok is building and loves talking about is supposed to make it a lot more difficult for Beijing-based employees to get their hands on Americans' data. But TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, and TikTok share a ton of resources. They share engineering teams. They share a legal team. And ultimately, ByteDance is the boss of TikTok. Texas Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw said he had this message for all the TikTokkers out there who think lawmakers are just out of touch and trying to take away young people's favorite app.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN CRENSHAW: You may not care that your data is being accessed now, but it will be one day when you do care about it. And here's the real problem - with data comes power. They can choose what you see and how you see it. They can make you believe things that are not true. They can encourage you to engage in behavior that will destroy your life. Even if it is not happening yet, it could in the future.

KELLY: All right. Well, let's stay with what might happen in the future. How might today's hearing influence whether TikTok has a future in the U.S.?

ALLYN: Right. And that's the question, right? And it's hard to imagine that Chew made the situation any better for TikTok, to be honest. I mean, this comes as Congress is pursuing legislation that would enable President Biden to put TikTok out of business. And Chew said that shouldn't be necessary, right? He keeps insisting that TikTok has always taken national security concerns very seriously and that he and other members of TikTok's executive team have been negotiating for years with the White House to try to reach some kind of deal. And he says, look, I know I have to win over Americans' trust with TikTok. He told the congresspeople that, right? But he also admitted that Beijing employees, at least right now, are able to get their hands on Americans' personal information. Though, yes, they have a plan to put an end to it, but they could still access it now, right?

But look, he ducked so many direct questions about how Chinese officials could try to use the app to manipulate the opinion of Americans. And, as we know, the Biden administration has ordered TikTok to sell to an American company, but the Chinese government is now pushing back, citing export control laws. So Mary Louise, the future of TikTok is very, very uncertain and likely to become even more uncertain after today.

KELLY: NPR's Bobby Allyn. Thank you, Bobby.

ALLYN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.