TikTok stops hiring for US security deals as opposition mounts

According to two sources, TikTok has stopped hiring consultants to help it implement a possible security agreement with the United States. This is in response to growing opposition from US officials to such a deal.

TikTok is a short-video application owned by Chinese tech conglomerate ByteDance. It has been trying to assure Washington over the past three years that no personal data can be accessed or its content could be altered by China’s ruling Communist Party, or any other entity controlled by Beijing.

President Joe Biden reversed a previous executive order by Donald Trump in 2021 to ban TikTok from the US. However, negotiations between his administrations and the social media company continue over a possible deal that would prevent ByteDance being forced to divest TikTok.

TikTok was involved in these negotiations and has been creating a program to assure the US government it will comply with their security agreements.

According to two people familiar, the programme will involve hiring a third party monitor, a source code inspector and three auditors. One is dedicated to cybersecurity, while one is responsible for ensuring that US user data from existing TikTok servers will be deleted after migration to Oracle Corp. These positions would be paid by TikTok but report to US officials.

TikTok issued requests for proposals in December for these roles in an effort to submit potential candidates to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, the security panel that has been scrutinising ByteDance’s ownership of the social media app.

However, TikTok told consultants who were competing for these positions late last month that the hiring process had been put on hold and that it would inform them by January about whether it will resume, according to sources.

TikTok explained the move to consultants by citing “recent developments”, but did not elaborate on which source it was referring to.

It is unclear what TikTok was talking about. The company put off hiring after admitting in December that two journalists had improperly accessed TikTok user information. This was done in an effort to find the source of the leaks.

According to sources familiar with the discussions, this revelation upset some US officials who supported a security agreement with TikTok. It also strengthened the position of China hawks within the US government that called for Mr Biden’s order for ByteDance divest the app.

It is not clear when the US government will decide on the future of TikTok.

TikTok’s spokesperson confirmed that the company has stopped hiring third-party security vendors as CFIUS had not approved the security agreement. According to the spokesman, TikTok had hoped that it would have reached an agreement with the US government by now.

Trust is easy.

TikTok already revealed several measures to appease the US government. These include an agreement for Oracle USA to store user data and a US security department to monitor data protection and moderation. It spent US$1.5billion (S$2billion) on the hiring and reorganisation necessary to build this unit.

Chris Griner is a Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP security attorney who was not involved in the TikTok negotiations. He stated that TikTok’s misuses of journalists’ data undermined all previous assurances to protect user data.

Griner stated to Reuters that he has done numerous reviews before CFIUS for decades – trust is a crucial component of successful reviews.” It is extremely difficult to get it back once it is gone.”

US lawmakers are seeking to clamp down on China in a wider set of disputes over trade and intellectual property. They have used TikTok security concerns to press the White House to adopt a tough line.

After similar bans in some states, Mr Biden signed into law a spending Bill that prohibits federal employees (roughly 4 million) from using TikTok to access government-issued devices.

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