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Project Texas: Inside TikTok’s billion-dollar plan to stay in America

Public domain photo from Nordskov Media via Flickr

Whether TikTok is a harmless time waster or a sneaky surveillance mechanism depends on who you ask – and it’s a question that members of Congress are currently wrestling over.

Last week, TikTok CEO Shou Chew answered pointed questions and criticisms from lawmakers – and many of his answers focused on Project Texas, the $1.5 billion plan TikTok is executing in the hopes of repairing American confidence.

Amanda O’Donnell wrote about Project Texas for Texas Monthly and joined the Texas Standard to break it down.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:

Texas Standard: For those who aren’t in the middle of all of this, what are the issues that U.S. security experts have with TikTok?

Amanda O’Donnell: So it seems that the U.S. is concerned with TikTok for a couple of reasons, primarily how the company stores and accesses U.S. user data – which, to be clear, there currently isn’t any proof or record that shows that, as a company, TikTok has abused that access. But there’s a fear that it could very easily, and that’s further complicated in the eyes of U.S. security experts by TikTok’s ownership. So TikTok is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance, and because of that fact alone, U.S. officials are concerned that it would be subject to China’s online surveillance laws, which are perceived as being considerably stricter than anything we have here in the U.S. And also China’s, just, the eye that it has on the media that circulates through its country.

So how is Project Texas meant to be a solution for all that?

So Project Texas, like you mentioned, it’s a $1.5 billion massive corporate restructuring, and it’s specifically aimed at building trust with the American government and American users. It’s created a U.S. committee that’s intended to help establish security on the app and for its users – that’s called the TikTok U.S. Data Security Committee, and the leadership for that will be approved by the U.S. government. And then the biggest aspect of the project is where U.S. user data is actually stored: So it’s this giant relocation of all U.S. user data to U.S. servers so that it never passes through Chinese servers.

What is Austin-based company Oracle’s role in this project? 

Yeah, so Oracle came in – I think they call them a technology partner – and they won out over Microsoft for the role. Under Project Texas, Oracle is teaming up with TikTok in a number of ways. They’ll be leading the security checks and balances, and they’ll have their own employees and teams of employees who review TikTok code and software and how user data is surveyed. But the biggest way that they’re helping out is they’ll be the company behind the cloud servers where all TikTok American user data will be stored.

Is this a risk at all for Oracle? I mean, it’s a pretty big player in Texas. What happens if the U.S. does go forward and ban TikTok? 

Yeah, what’s interesting about that is I do think Oracle came on board with TikTok quite a few years back, so they maybe didn’t know all that they were getting into. They didn’t maybe have an eye on the future and how TikTok’s relations with America would play out. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a risk. The other thing to note is that Oracle is actually an investor with TikTok. So if TikTok is banned within the U.S., Oracle still might keep that investment going for other companies. I’ve also heard reports that there’s a possibility that for the other countries that TikTok is appealing to to fight a ban, that Oracle could still store some of that on their servers for other countries who perceive the American servers as safer.

Well, you hinted at this a little bit because the conversation in Washington right now has to do with transparency. But to be honest, as you hinted at, other social sites aren’t being looked at the way that TikTok is. What’s going on there? I mean, is it really just the relationship with China that is setting this apart? 

Yeah, unfortunately, I think that’s the perception. It’s something that TikTok has pointed out several times itself. You heard Chew in the trial; he brought it up numerous times. The level of scrutiny that TikTok has against it from the U.S. government is starkly more involved than any other social media company where American user data is passing through. I think what people are taking from that is it’s clear that U.S. officials see cybersecurity as a more pressing issue when the perceived threat is coming from another country, particularly China. And there are a lot of reads on last week’s trial that the U.S. response is in some degree rooted in xenophobia, especially at a time when relations with China are shakier than usual.

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Kristen Cabrera is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, where she saw snow for the first time and walked a mile through a blizzard. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, she graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American (now UTRGV) and is a former KUT News intern. She has been working as a freelance audio producer, writer and podcaster. Email her: kcabrera@kut.org