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A House bill proposing a sale or a ban of TikTok has moved to the Senate

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A bill that could ban TikTok is now in the hands of the Senate. A bipartisan majority in the House voted in favor of the bill that would compel TikTok's Chinese ownership to sell the app to a U.S. company or face removal from app stores here. Supporters believe that would ensure that China can't use its security laws to demand the turnover of Americans' user data. TikTok CEO Shou Chew told reporters in D.C. that's never happened.

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SHOU CHEW: There's a lot of noise, but I haven't heard, you know, exactly what we have done that's wrong.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, to date, lawmakers have not offered any evidence of the Chinese Communist Party using TikTok as a weapon against American interests. Jen Golbeck is a professor at the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park. Professor, so what kind of data is TikTok capable of tracking?

JEN GOLBECK: Really detailed data about people. So your contact list, your calendar, every hour TikTok accesses that. And if you've denied that permission, it keeps asking. It can scan any hard drive that's connected to the device that you're using. Plus, it gets really detailed information from your use of the app, even if you're continuing to scroll. If you slow down, it can track that. It can potentially turn on the front-facing camera and look at your face. We know a lot of apps are able to do that. So it gets very fine-grained data about people, their activities, the data on their devices and their preferences.

MARTÍNEZ: How different is that from, say, what Facebook or Twitter does?

GOLBECK: Not at all different, which I think is a really important part of this conversation.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

GOLBECK: All these major social media apps, all these platforms are able to connect - collect this really granular data about us and use it for all kinds of purposes.

MARTÍNEZ: So if TikTok becomes an American company and does all the things we just talked about with user data, the same things that Facebook and Twitter do, then everything's OK, everything's cool.

GOLBECK: You know, I personally don't think so. I think we need much better regulation over what all these platforms can do with our data, because although there are, I think, legitimate national security concerns about what China could do with this, there should be those concerns about what happens if American companies do it, too, because those can be used to, say, manipulate elections, to change people's perception of issues, not just in the United States, but in other countries as well. So I think there's this bigger issue about what kind of data collection should be allowed and what rights do we have over our data.

MARTÍNEZ: So what could bad actors do with the data?

GOLBECK: So the concern with China is that they could access any of this. So the surface level concern here is national security issues for government workers, for the military, that China could use this to track their location. We know every social media platform tracks your location, even if you turn those settings off. So we could actually see where troop movement are, where government officials are, where they're living. But then we also can get deeper down into that.

So we know from a decade ago that if you are showing certain pieces of data to people, you can change whether or not they're likely to vote. So you could imagine a platform that would want to influence an election could find those voters who are the ones that might swing it - they're in a swing state, they're in a county, they're likely to vote or not vote for your candidate - and use those tools to make them do something, or to sway their opinion on issues like their suspicion that TikTok might be doing with Gaza right now. So there's a lot of power you get when you've got that much data about people and the ability to control what they see.

MARTÍNEZ: There has been a lot of congressional grandstanding over this, but at some point, will lawmakers be required or at least asked to show evidence that the Chinese Communist Party is using TikTok as a weapon?

GOLBECK: That's such a good question. I would love to see that. I will say that, you know, we heard TikTok denies that this is happening. I have seen no public reporting that shows that any of this has been used. But when I talk to my friends who work in national security, they're all like, oh, yeah, we definitely have a threat here. So my suspicion is that there is some classified information about how TikTok data is getting to the Chinese government. That is absolutely a suspicion on my end. I would love to see some hard evidence. But right now, it does feel like China is an easy enemy to have a public political discussion about, and that's what's driving a lot of this.

MARTÍNEZ: What about the TikTok CEO? Can we take him at his word when he says the company is not sharing data with the Chinese government?

GOLBECK: I never take any social media CEOs at their word about what they're doing with data.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

GOLBECK: He may be right. You know, we really don't know. We don't have any evidence. But social media companies like to cover up some of the things that sound creepy about what they're doing. And we've seen that from American companies, too.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Jen Golbeck with the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. Professor, thanks.

GOLBECK: Thank you. 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.

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