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Senate Panel Grills Social Media Execs Over National Security Issues, Privacy Concerns

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WASHINGTON - Social media giants are under scrutiny by Congress over threats to national security. 

Major big tech representatives were in the hot seat Wednesday, facing questions from the Senate Homeland Security Committee over faulty security practices.

The hearing comes one day after a whistleblower accused Twitter of employing an undercover Chinese spy.

The Chinese-owned Tik Tok is also among social media companies being criticized over security concerns and potential national security issues.

The current and former executives of social media companies were grilled by senators from both sides of the aisle with several sounding the alarm.

"4,000 engineers at Twitter had access to all of the personal information, user data, geo locations of Twitter users. Is that accurate," said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO)

Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) chaired the Senate panel. He accused the platforms of intentionally sending users dangerous content that may fuel domestic terror. 

"Unfortunately, because these platforms are designed to push the most engaging posts to more users, they end up amplifying extremists, dangerous and radicalizing content," said Peters. 

Former executives of Meta, the owner and operator of the platform Facebook and Instagram, along with Twitter warned the committee that YouTube, Twitter, Meta, and TikTok are not addressing the potential harm of their platforms, saying the companies prioritize profit over safety.

"I lost my trust with the companies with what they were doing, and what Meta was doing," said Brian Boland, a former vice president of Meta Platform, Inc. "We should move beyond trust to helping researchers and journalists understand the platforms better." 

The hearing followed bombshell testimony Tuesday alleging Twitter accounts are not as secure as they should be. 

A former Twitter security chief told Congress the social media platform is plagued by weak cyber defenses, privacy threats, and the inability to control millions of fake accounts.

"They don't know what data they have, where it lives, or where it came from and so unsurprisingly they can't protect it and this leads to the second problem which is the employees then have to have too much access to too much data and to too many systems," said Peter "Mudge" Zatko.

Critics also argue that Tik-Tok's Chinese ownership puts users at risk.

"Just imagine the Chinese having tens of millions of Americans' private messages, their location, their IP addresses. Their browsing history. You don't realize when you open Twitter on your iPhone, for example, Twitter will be able to access data from other applications you use on that phone," said The Heritage Foundation's Will Thibeau.

The former executives are also calling for transparency rules. But efforts to regulate the companies have so far stalled in Congress amid partisan disagreements and a lobbying effort by the tech giants and their trade groups. 

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Tara Mergener is an award-winning journalist and expert storyteller who spent the majority of her career as a correspondent in Washington, D.C. She worked at CBS Newspath for many years, reporting for all CBS platforms, including CBS News and CBS affiliates throughout the nation. Tara also reported at CNN, Hearst’s Washington, D.C. Bureau, and was a contributor on Full Court Press with Greta Van Susteren. Tara has won dozens of awards for her investigative and political reporting, including Headliner Foundation’s Best Reporter in Texas, multiple Edward R. Murrow awards, Texas Associated Press