Alexandra S. Levine Forbes Staff
I'm a senior writer covering social media and online culture.
June 21, 2023
TikTok's Project Texas is focused on cordoning off American user data from China. Lawmakers have expressed doubts that such a firewall is technically possible.
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TikTok has said under oath that Americans’ data has always been stored outside China. Now it’s saying there are big exceptions for creators—who it claims it treats differently than “typical users.”
TikTok has acknowledged to the U.S. government that sensitive information about American creators who sign up to earn money through the app is stored in China.
The company responded Friday to a letter that bipartisan Senate leaders sent recently to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew that raised concerns about his “incorrect claims” to Congress regarding where TikTok has stored the data of its U.S. users. Weeks after Chew testified to a House committee that “American data has always been stored in Virginia and Singapore,” a Forbes investigation found that TikTok has stored the financial information of its biggest American and European stars—including those in the TikTok Creator Fund—on servers in China. In the wake of those revelations, Senate Democrat Richard Blumenthal and Republican Marsha Blackburn demanded answers.
In TikTok’s response to their questions, the company said there is a difference between “U.S. user data collected by the TikTok app” and information that creators give to TikTok so they can be paid for content they post. The former is stored in TikTok’s data centers in the U.S. and Singapore, TikTok said. It did not explicitly state where the latter is stored. A trove of internal documents obtained by Forbes, and several people across different parts of the company familiar with the matter, have shown that tax forms, social security numbers and other information from creators and outside vendors has been stored in China; payments to both are managed through tools from TikTok’s China-based parent ByteDance.
“We were asked about, and our testimony focused on, the protected user data collected in the app—not creator data.”
TikTok’s June 16 response to Senate leaders
“We stand by the statements made by our company executives to Congress,” TikTok wrote in the letter. “We were asked about, and our testimony focused on, the protected user data collected in the app—not creator data.”
Creator data, it explained, is often an exception.
“Protected data” is “user data identified by the U.S. Government as needing additional protection,” the letter said. But it emphasized that there are “limited exceptions” that it said “were determined as part of TikTok's extensive, multi-year negotiations with CFIUS”—the government body working on a national security deal that would allow the app to keep operating here.
The letter claimed those “limited exceptions” include all of the following categories: “Public data, business metrics, interoperability data, and certain creator data, if a creator voluntarily signs up for a commercial program to be supported by TikTok in reaching new audiences and monetizing content.”
“TikTok believes that the Forbes article cited in your letter was referencing certain creator data such as signed contracts and related documents for U.S. creators who enter into a commercial relationship with TikTok—information that is collected outside of the standard app experience,” the company wrote to the Senators. “Like most companies, we enter into commercial relationships with businesses and individuals, and collect and retain certain information to comply with applicable audit, accounting, tax, and other regulations.”
CFIUS did not respond to questions about whether these exceptions for creators are part of a yet-to-be-released national security contract with TikTok.
Asked about TikTok’s distinction between what it claimed are “two different categories of data: protected data and data that falls under an exception,” Blumenthal and Blackburn told Forbes they were not convinced.
“We are extremely concerned that TikTok is storing Americans' personal, private data within the reach of the Chinese government,” the Senators said in a joint statement. “TikTok executives appear to have repeatedly and intentionally misled Congress when answering how the company secures and protects the data of Americans. TikTok’s response makes it crystal clear that Americans’ data is still exposed to Beijing’s draconian and pervasive spying regimes – despite the claims of TikTok’s misleading public relations campaign.”
They are not the only congressional leaders that have raised alarms about claims made under oath by TikTok top brass that appear to run counter to findings in the Forbes report. Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Marco Rubio earlier this month asked Attorney General Merrick Garland to open a Justice Department investigation into whether TikTok’s CEO committed perjury in his testimony; a week later, 13 House Republicans followed suit.
Asked by Senators Blumenthal and Blackburn if TikTok has taken steps to investigate whether TikTok Creator Fund data stored or accessible in China has been shared with officials in Beijing, the company said: “TikTok has not been asked for this data by the Chinese government or the CCP. TikTok has not provided such data to the Chinese government or CCP, nor would TikTok do so.”
And asked whether TikTok Creator Fund data stored in China has been or would be removed from servers there, the company said deletion was underway for “protected data.” That does not, according to TikTok, include personal information top creators hand over to get paid.