According to reports, Chinese-owned TikTok is working feverishly to transfer all data it has on US users to the US and put an American team in charge.
ByteDance, the owner of the popular social video app, has launched Project Texas, which will also see the end of US employees reporting to its Beijing-based managers.
Efforts to bring data to the US began a year ago, with thousands of TikTok employees participating in the effort, which included limiting access to the data from outside the US.
According to a BuzzFeed report, this is how ByteDance has decided to address US regulators’ concerns that the Chinese government could use the app to access sensitive information on US citizens. A number of core TikTok systems, including those that determine how viral a video is, will be cloned and operated from the United States for the first time, as will the algorithm that powers the ‘For You’ page recommendations.
TikTok has chosen Oracle as its “trusted technology partner” for Project Texas, which means that all data and systems will be housed and run from Oracle data centers.
Once the US rollout is complete, the company intends to replicate the process in Europe and other parts of the world, allowing specific regional control over data while also allowing users to connect internationally, according to experts. TikTok has sparked debate since its debut in September 2016, quickly becoming one of the most popular and influential social media platforms.
According to reports, another aspect of Project Texas that has yet to be determined is how much control and influence the Beijing headquarters of ByteDance will have over US operations. After all, it is still a component of ByteDance, albeit one that is managed independently.
Staff in the United States currently report to middle managers in the United States, who report to executives for ByteDance based in Beijing – the question is how far they can go in removing Chinese management from the chain of command. According to BuzzFeed, ByteDance is considering legal models that would prevent Chinese managers from accessing US data while still allowing them to participate in decision-making.
TikTok stated in a statement that it is “committed to protecting the privacy and security of our community.” User data is stored in data centers in the United States and Singapore, and we continue to invest in data security as part of our overall efforts to protect our users and their information.’
The company has not stated how far along talks on creating a completely separate entity to govern US data are, but it is likely to be a significant piece of work for the company that could spread globally. TikTok has been banned in several countries, blocked by businesses and institutions, and threatened with an investigation due to its Chinese ownership.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) began looking into whether TikTok posed a threat to national security in 2019.
The US Navy and Army banned TikTok from soldiers’ work phones the same year, and Trump said in 2020 that if the app was not sold to a US firm, he would ban it.
While it hasn’t been sold, and a deal for Oracle to buy the US arm fell through last year, the deal for Oracle to manage all data is widely regarded as going far enough to assuage regulators and politicians’ concerns. ByteDance has already taken steps to keep US data separate, such as separating teams working on TikTok from those working on Douyin, the Chinese equivalent, and the Oracle deal takes it a step further.
It also comes as the Joe Biden administration is working on legislation to limit the amount of access foreign-owned apps can have to US citizen data.
Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Trump supporter and outspoken critic of Chinese meddling, said she would be concerned as long as ‘product developers and key decision makers’ are based in China.