Zoom app built by Chinese firms subject to pressure from Communist Party may endanger human rights and American privacy
Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., on Thursday urged the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an investigation into video conference service Zoom Video Communications Inc. and popular video-sharing social media app TikTok over their close ties to the Chinese Communist Party and their privacy and data security practices.
The lawmakers noted in a letter that the coronavirus pandemic has forced more Americans to create their own entertainment at home and that both platforms have exploded in popularity. Hawley and Blumenthal wrote that they’re concerned about numerous reports saying “Zoom and TikTok have disclosed private information about Americans to the [Chinese government] and engaged in censorship on behalf of” China.
Video Apps Under Scrutiny
“Despite repeated promises of transparency and multiple inquiries from Congress, both Zoom and TikTok have failed to answer even basic questions about their business operations, including who has access to personal information and when they comply with request from China or other governments,” the lawmakers told Assistant Attorney General John Demers of the DOJ’s National Security Division.
“We believe that it is imperative that the Department of Justice investigate and determine whether Zoom and TikTok’s business relationships, data handling practices, and operational connections to China pose a risk to Americans” the letter added.
The senators also asked that the DOJ and the intelligence community brief Congress on this issue as soon as possible.
TikTok’s headquarters are in Culver City, California, and its parent company, ByteDance, is based in Beijing.
Zoom Built in China
Zoom is based in San Jose, California. But the senators cited an April report by Canadian research group Citizen Lab that said the Zoom application appears to be developed by three firms in China and the company has hundreds of employees there who work in research and development.
According to the senators, Chinese tech firms are “notoriously bound to draconian intelligence laws, media regulations, and extrajudicial pressure” that compel them to censor critics of the Communist Party and to act as spies.
The letter further asserted that Hawley and Blumenthal are “profoundly concerned” that both companies could pose a threat to the safety of Americans and human rights activists in China working with U.S.-based dissidents.
China Pressures Zoom to Suppress Opposition
The letter noted that in early June, several Chinese pro-democracy advocates, including Zhou Fengsuo, a prominent student leader who was involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and lives in exile in the U.S., were suspended by Zoom following a demand from China. The move came after human rights activists held a peaceful commemoration of the student-led demonstrations calling for democracy, free speech and a free press in China.
“In addition to being a chilling case of censorship within the United States, Zoom has still failed to answer whether it turned over information about those attending that meeting to the Chinese government,” the lawmakers wrote. “Such disclosures of sensitive information concerning that meeting, and other similar events like online church services, could be a death sentence for vulnerable communities inside of China.”
A spokesperson for the DOJ did not immediately respond on Thursday to requests for comment on the senators’ request.
Zoom Assets its American Credentials
In a statement to Law360, a Zoom spokesperson said the video technology firm is an American company founded and headquartered in California, incorporated in Delaware and publicly traded on the Nasdaq.
“We take user privacy, security, and trust extremely seriously, and as always, we welcome conversations with officials about our global business practices and policies,” the Zoom representative said.
A TikTok spokesperson asserted that American users’ data is stored in the U.S. and that there’s a backup in Singapore “with strict controls on employee access.”
“We’ve never shared TikTok user data with the Chinese government, and would not do so if asked. Period,” the company told Law360 in a statement.
“We regularly release transparency reports that detail the government requests we receive and the content we remove. Our content and moderation policies are led by our U.S.-based team in California and aren’t influenced by any foreign government, and we publish information about how our recommendation system works,” TikTok added.
The lawmaker’s letter also comes as both companies are facing a slew of legal challenges over their privacy and data security protocols.
TikTok in particular has been slapped with several proposed consumer class actions in Illinois over its handling of biometric data, and advocacy groups are claiming the app violated the terms of a $5.7 million deal it reached in February 2019 with the Federal Trade Commission to resolve children’s privacy claims.
Meanwhile, Zoom is facing at least eight proposed class actions in California alleging the videoconferencing platform failed to protect users’ personal information.