This article originally appeared in Washington Examiner, dated August 6th, 2020.
President Trump initially planned to ban the social media app TikTok, a video-making platform popular with Generation Z, from being accessible in the United States due to its affiliation with the Chinese government and invasive data collection policies. “As far as TikTok is concerned, we’re banning them from the United States,” he said bluntly.
Then, on Sunday, Microsoft announced it was moving forward with plans to purchase TikTok from its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, by Sept. 15. The deal is not done, however, and Trump has stated that he will deliberate on the matter.
Trump should stick with his original plan. No company, American or Chinese, should have the kind of access to confidential and extremely personal information that TikTok requires of its users.
As part of TikTok’s user agreement, new users are required to give its parent company access to personal phone information, user typing patterns, and photos and videos. Said Bloomberg News: Once you use TikTok for a few days, the app has a good idea of what you look like, how you hold your phone, who your friends are, what videos you like to watch, what topics you’re interested in and what websites you visit. It reads the messages you compose and exchange on the app. TikTok can then match this data to other information collected about users from third-party services and publicly available sources.
However, TikTok’s data harvesting is actually not significantly more invasive than the likes of Google and Facebook. In some cases, Facebook’s data harvesting is more invasive, and it can actually track your personal and phone data even when you are not usingFacebook and your phone is off.
Now, the critical difference: Facebook is headquartered and run in America, while TikTok is owned by a Chinese company that is required to give the Chinese government its data if asked thanks to a 2017 Chinese surveillance law. In fact, although TikTok denies it, it is possible that TikTok has already been asked to turn over its data now that Beijing sees that its preferred platform may be nearing the end of its life.
That ability for the Chinese government to access hundreds of millions of young U.S. users’ personal data alone makes TikTok banworthy. The U.S.-China relationship is growing increasingly frosty, and China will seek advantages wherever it can, including in the realm of data collection. If China can justify banning Facebook and Google over U.S. security concerns, then certainly our country has the right to ban the Chinese-owned TikTok from our shores.
Just because a company such as TikTok could potentially be transferred to Microsoft, and therefore American ownership, does not mean that it is suddenly off the hook. We will not, likely ever, have true clarity on whether TikTok’s promised “divestiture” of data from all of its Chinese operations would ever happen.
As far as U.S. security analysts are concerned, TikTok is already a compromised company, with many structural and security deficiencies, including its high rate of data transference to its home base in China. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin said to reporters: “I will say publicly that the entire committee agrees that TikTok cannot stay in the current format because it risks sending back information on 100 million Americans.”
Even under a sale, severing that many connections with its home company would be extraordinarily difficult and would leave room for hackers to step in and get the data on their own.
Although selling to Microsoft does assuage some concerns about direct foreign interference, Big Tech companies are vulnerable to China’s strong-arming as well.
Apple, for example, relies very much on its relationship with China (in particular, China’s parts-making factories) to keep costs down and increase its profits. Who is to say that China might not come back and ask Apple for a favor of its own?
Also, lax security practices in the technology industry have partially led to China’s stealing of trillions of dollars worth of data theft over the past 20 years, giving China a rapid expansion in its technology industry that now boasts nine of the world’s top 20 technology companies.
And yet, when grilled on China’s technology theft on Wednesday, three of the four Big Tech CEOs — Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, and Sundar Pichai of Google — demurred on the question, refusing to say outright their position on a technology crisis that attacks their industries in particular. Only one, Mark Zuckerberg, went so far as to saythat the problem has been “well documented,” which it is.
It appears as if it is not just Chinese companies that have the potential to get starry-eyed with the Chinese Communist Party. There are too many concerns both with TikTok’s transfer to Microsoft and with the state of the Big Tech industry’s relationship with China in the first place that make this potential deal a no-go.