A TikTok logo seen appears on a smartphone with the Chinese flag in the background.
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White House business adviser Peter Navarro called new TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer an “American puppet” for working on the Chinese-owned social media app.
In an interview with Fox Business on Sunday, Navarro also doubled down on accusations that Chinese apps are collecting data on Americans and turning it over to Beijing. She also said she expected “strong action” from President Donald Trump on TikTok and other Chinese apps.
TikTok has been in Washington’s sights for a few months. But the pressure on TikTok, owned by Beijing-based Bytedance, increased last week when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the government is “analyzing” the viral app ban.
The Trump administration maintains that TikTok and other Chinese apps collect a lot of data from American users and send it back to China, accusations repeated by Navarro.
“What the American people have to understand is that all the data found in those mobile apps that kids have so much fun with and seem so convenient about, goes directly to servers in China, the Chinese military, the Chinese Communist Party and the agencies that want to steal our intellectual property, “Navarro told Fox.
“Those apps can be used to steal personal and financial information for blackmail and extortion, they can be used to steal commercial intellectual property and property secrets.”
The Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology was not immediately available for comment when CNBC contacted him.
Navarro also mentioned WeChat, the largest messaging app in China, owned by tech giant Tencent.
“TikTok and WeChat are the largest forms of censorship on the Chinese mainland, and so they expect strong action on it,” he said.
TikTok does not operate within mainland China. Instead, ByteDance runs a similar product called Douyin.
After mentioning that India banned several Chinese apps, Navarro said: “TikTok, WeChat, I suspect the president is just starting with those two,” without giving details if that meant a ban would come.
In response to Navarro’s comments, a TikTok spokesperson said protecting the privacy of its users’ data is a “critical priority.”
“Our Chief Information Security Officer has decades of experience in the industry and law enforcement in the United States. The parent company of TikTok is a privately held company backed by some of America’s best-known investors, who occupy four of its five seats on the board, “a TIkTok spokesperson told CNBC.
“Users around the world enjoy TikTok, but the app is not even available in China. As we have repeatedly said, we have never shared TikTok user data with the Chinese government, and we would not if we were told requests. Period “.
Tencent declined to comment.
TikTok has faced censorship allegations in the past, but has denied it removes “content based on sensitivities in China or other governments.” Regarding privacy, TikTok previously said that US user data is stored in the United States, with a backup in Singapore. The app also said that it “has never provided user data to the Chinese government” nor would it do so if asked.
Services operating on the Chinese mainland, including WeChat, regularly censor posts and messages deemed to be sensitive to the Chinese government.
TikTok CEO, an ‘American puppet’
TikTok has been trying to distance itself from its Chinese parent company.
ByteDance hired Mayer, a former Disney executive, to be the CEO of TikTok earlier this year. Its priority was seen as rebuilding trust with regulators.
But Navarro criticized the hiring, calling Mayer a “US puppet” and saying the strategy of putting a US citizen in charge “is not going to work.”
TikTok was not immediately available to comment specifically on Mayer’s comments.
The White House trade adviser also said that any plan to make TikTok a U.S. company would not be beneficial to the U.S.
“If TikTok, if it separates as a US company, that doesn’t help us because … we are going to have to give China billions of dollars for the privilege of TikTok operating on US soil,” said Navarro.