Lawmakers press TikTok about China and user data in Senate hearing

But no one on the Homeland Security Committee asked Twitter about alleged foreign agents at the company.

Tom Williams via Getty Images

Top executives from Meta, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok just wrapped up a three-hour hearing in front of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. The hearing, which featured Meta CPO Chris Cox, YouTube CPO Neal Mohan, TikTok COO Vanessa Pappas and Twitter’s GM of consumer product (known as “Bluebird”), was meant to be focused on how their services impact national security issues.

Notably, the hearing is only the second time representatives for TikTok and YouTube had ever appeared at such a hearing — Meta and Twitter execs have been hauled in front of Congress far more often — and the first dedicated to security. The hearing also came one day after Twitter’s former security chief turned whistleblower told a different Senate committee that the company had been previously warned by the FBI it had a Chinese spy on its payroll. Yet not one senator on the Homeland Security Committee asked Sullivan about the allegation.

To be clear, Sullivan was unlikely to have given a substantive answer. When asked about whistleblower Peiter Zatko’s claim that Twitter lied to the FTC, he would only say that “Twitter disputes the allegations." But it was still somewhat shocking that the issue was not raised in a hearing dedicated to social media platforms' impact on national security.

Lawmakers did, however, spend considerable time questioning Pappas on TikTok’s connections to China, which has long been a source of suspicion among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle."TikTok does not operate in China,” Pappas said more than once.

At one point, Sen. Josh Hawley got into a heated exchange with Pappas over whether the company has China-based employees who are members of the Chinese Communist Party. “We've said many times, Senator, that we do have Chinese engineers based in China,” Pappas said. “I don't think there's any platform up here that would be able to speak to what you're talking about as it relates to the political affiliation of an individual.” She later added that the company’s leadership team is based in the United States and Singapore.

Pappas was also asked about a BuzzFeed News story that TikTok user data had been repeatedly accessed by employees based in China. She said that “those allegations were not found,” and emphasized the company’s “strict access controls” and its work with Oracle.

The TikTok COO was also questioned about the app’s use of biometric data. “We do not use any sort of a facial, voice, audio or body recognition that would identify an individual,” Pappas told Sen. Kristen Sinema. She added that facial recognition is used for augmented reality effects in creators’ videos.

There was a lot less discussion of other security-related issues, including social media companies’ handling of domestic extremism. Committee Chairman Sen. Gary Peters pressed Cox and Mohan and why Meta and YouTube didn’t crack down on QAnon more quickly. Both side-stepped the question by focusing on their current policies. Other lawmakers chose to spend their time questioning the companies about their handling of vaccine misinformation during the pandemic and other content moderation issues.

And, as with previous hearings, the executives were often reluctant to provide specific answers even to seemingly straightforward questions. Peters repeatedly asked each executive how many engineers each company had on staff — a question he said they were notified would be coming in advance — but none would give a direct answer. “I'll be honest, I’m frustrated that chief product officers — all of you have a prominent seat at the table where these business decisions are made — were not more prepared,” Peters said. “Your companies continue to really avoid you sharing some very important information with us.”