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French pharmaceutical must-haves. An orangutan expertly inserting a straw into a juice box. Someone dancing well. Someone dancing badly. Hyperrealistic cake decor. The history of Japan’s international relations told via puppet. The coolest waterfall in Oregon. Nine different ways to achieve the same braid. A dog drinking out of an unattended glass of water in a funny way.
Depending on the #ForYou page, popular short-form video app TikTok can present as a frighteningly endless scroll of sometimes brainless, sometimes absurd, occasionally educational, and always easily digestible entertainment.
But in recent months the app has also become the renewed focus of cybersecurity concerns and the target of more than two dozen statewide bans, including one issued by Texas Governor Greg Abbott last December that banned the app from being downloaded on government-owned phones and computers. The order had a ripple effect, and state universities followed suit. The University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, and a handful of others across Texas banned the social media platform from their college campuses—a decision met with a mix of annoyance, praise, and vows from students to circumvent the restriction.
Although they’ve resurfaced with fresh urgency, fears about TikTok’s security and data management—and attempts to stymie the app’s use in the U.S.—aren’t new. In 2020, former president Donald Trump’s administration cracked down on the app, signing an executive order that outlawed transactions between America and TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance. Although the order was later reversed by President Joe Biden, the current administration has since prohibited the use of TikTok on devices owned by a federal agency. The threat of a more widespread, nationwide ban looms.
In fact, TikTok is seeing the most bipartisan opposition it ever has, with notable Democratic players and several states led by Democratic governors joining a historically Republican-driven push.
Early this month, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said a nationwide ban “should be looked at.” It’s safe to assume that Schumer and, similarly, deputy attorney general Lisa Monaco are getting their short-form video fix elsewhere, after Monaco strongly discouraged using TikTok during a recent panel, saying China’s “national security law requires any company doing business in China to make its data accessible to the government. So, if a company is operating in China and is collecting your data, it’s a good bet that the Chinese government is accessing it.”
“I don’t use TikTok, and I would not advise anybody to do so because of these concerns,” Monaco added.
Monaco’s remarks get to the heart of governmental suspicions and criticisms lobbed at the video-sharing app: despite being a privately owned company with offices and employees (thousands of whom are American) located around the world, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance was founded and remains headquartered in China. Officials fear this fact alone could make Americans and the U.S. government “vulnerable to China’s authoritarian style of online surveillance and media control,” the Washington Post reports. In addressing these concerns, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew told the Post that China has never requested U.S. user data, and “even if they did, we believe we don’t have to give it to them because U.S. user data is subject to U.S. law.”
Although Monaco called the odds of China accessing user data “a good bet,” the U.S. hasn’t made public any evidence that it has actually done so. Recently, cybersecurity officials in Connecticut requested evidence of any wrongdoing by TikTok from the FBI. The bureau couldn’t provide any.
“State governors and legislatures are pressing ahead with bans of TikTok based on nothing more than the hypothetical concerns they’ve heard on the news,” said Brooke Oberwetter, TikTok’s head of policy communications, in a statement. In talking with Oberwetter, it’s that clear pressures to prove the app is secure, and threats to its fate if it can’t, are top of mind for the company’s leadership. This is assumed especially true of Chew, who gave a recent exclusive interview to the Post pleading TikTok’s case and will make his congressional debut next month when he is set to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to do the same.
Enter “Project Texas”—a massive, $1.5-billion corporate restructuring plan aimed at instilling American confidence in TikTok’s operations and security. Project Texas earned its initially confidential name in 2020 when Austin-based cloud company Oracle won out over Microsoft to serve as TikTok’s U.S. technology partner. The project name leaked to the public and stuck.
Oberwetter said the initiative, which began rolling out in July 2022, addresses data security, works to protect influence over content, and ensures there are no backdoors into the app. Under Project Texas, TikTok’s American operations would be siloed and monitored by an in-house committee called TikTok U.S. Data Security—leadership for which would be approved by the U.S. government. Under the new organizational structure, TikTok would also utilize the Committee of Foreign Investment in the United States, an interagency U.S. governmental committee that has handled TikTok negotiations for the last few years, as a third-party security resource. Additionally, Oracle would be able to review TikTok’s code and software in “transparency centers,” and monitor global data flows necessary to allow U.S. TikTok users to engage with the app’s international content. The U.S. government will reportedly also be able to access the transparency centers.
“The way we’ve built this plan, and the level of external oversight, is really meant to make it so that you don’t have to take my word for it or Oracle’s word for it,” Oberwetter said. “There will be multiple layers of oversight by multiple federal agencies, multiple outside consultants, security vendors, and auditors.”
Only some portions of Project Texas have been enacted—most notably the transference of all U.S. user data to Oracle’s cloud infrastructure, intended to keep user data from ever leaving the U.S.
That’s right. The personal data and information of every TikTok user in the country is being stored on servers owned by a company headquartered (somewhat newly) in the heart of Texas. To be clear, none of Oracle’s established cloud data servers are actually located in Texas. So, the Texas connection to Project Texas is (as they say on TikTok) reaching.
Concerning the storage partnership, a BuzzFeed report noted the flexibility Oracle would award TikTok in how the data center is run, with Oracle providing actual “bare metal” data storage space and TikTok controlling the software and virtual machines it’s hosted on. It’s also worth noting that in announcing the initial partnership, Oracle said it would become a minority investor in TikTok and take a 12.5 percent stake in the company.
Even so, TikTok officials point out that Project Texas provides more transparency and subjects the company to more scrutiny than any fellow social media company in the U.S.
For some TikTok-resistant lawmakers, it’s clear the company’s current campaign is still coming up short. “I don’t think there’s anything they can say. It’s all about what they do, and what they do is pretty alarming,” U.S. senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii told the Post.
Similarly, after U.S. senator Michael F. Bennet from Colorado met with Chew to hear about TikTok’s efforts, he reiterated his belief that the app was “an unacceptable risk to U.S. national security.”
“There’s not another company that’s going to be subjected to this level of scrutiny,” Oberwetter said. “It’s more like the levels of security you’d see at a defense contractor than what you’d see at a social media and entertainment company.”
But amid a battle over national security and an ongoing tech turf war, is it enough? Next month’s hearing promises to test Project Texas’s latency, and TikTok’s charm offensive, on a national stage.
Till then: Someone dancing well. A cat asleep on a sheep. How to really clean your shower curtain.