Hawley, at tech hearing, warns parents that China ‘knows where your children are’

Sen. Josh Hawley kept two seats empty Tuesday when he chaired a hearing on the threat China poses to Americans’ data security.

Both Apple, the California-based tech giant, and TikTok, a Chinese-owned social media company, rebuffed the Missouri Republican’s invitations to testify on the issue before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee.

Hawley excoriated the two firms at the outset of the hearing, which was titled “How Corporations and Big Tech Leave Our Data Exposed to Criminals, China, and Other Bad Actors.”

Neither company answered inquiries from The Star about their decision to skip the hearing.

Hawley has established himself as one of Capitol Hill’s harshest critics of the tech industry and among its most outspoken voices against Chinese repression of dissent in Hong Kong, where civil unrest continues.

Tuesday’s hearing gave Hawley the opportunity to link the two issues, sounding alarms about China’s potential access to data on U.S. teens through TikTok, a social media platform that allows users to share videos.

“A company compromised by the Chinese Communist Party knows where your children are, knows what they look like, what their voices sound like, what they’re watching and what they share with each other,” Hawley said in his opening statement.

In addition to teens, Hawley noted that a number of public figures in the U.S. use TikTok, which he argued creates a security risk.

“What does it mean for China to have a window into such users’ social lives? Why would we leave that window open?”

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Beijing company. But in a letter to the committee, the firm explained that its app for U.S. consumers is managed by a team in the U.S. and that all data was stored in this country, not China.

“No governments, foreign or domestic, direct how we moderate TikTok,” the company added in the letter.

But Hawley pointed to an investigation published Tuesday by The Washington Post, in which former employees asserted that moderators in Beijing had the final say over whether to remove content from the app, as evidence of the potential threat to U.S. users’ data.

“TikTok should answer for these discrepancies. They should answer to the millions of Americans who use their product with no idea of its risks. They should have been here today,” he said.

“But after this letter to this committee they must appear now appear under oath to tell the truth about their company and its ambitions and what they’re doing with our data.”

Hawley later told reporters that subpoenas to force TikTok to testify before the full Senate Judiciary Committee should be on the table.

All witnesses at Tuesday’s appeared voluntarily. Microsoft was the only tech company to send a representative.

During the hearing, Hawley also chastised Apple for its absence and questioned its reputation as a “good corporate citizen.”

He noted that Apple’s business model is increasingly intertwined with China both for the manufacture of its products and its consumer base, which he argued creates conflicts of interest.

Hawley, who visited Hong Kong last month, noted that the company removed an app that had been used by protest organizers after pressure from the Chinese government.

Hawley asked FBI Director Christopher Wray at a separate hearing on homeland security later in the day about whether U.S. companies storing data in China poses a security risk. Wray confirmed to Hawley that the bureau takes the threat seriously.

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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