Banning TikTok won’t keep us safe.
As you may have heard, the United States government is in the midst of a full-on panic about TikTok, the Chinese-owned video app best known for its ability to inspire teens to try out new dance moves.
Last week, the White House reportedly demanded that TikTok’s owners sell or face a ban. The ultimatum comes after months of anti-TikTok rhetoric: The head of the National Security Agency told Congress he is concerned about TikTok being used for foreign influence operations. A dozen senators introduced a White House-endorsed bill that would give the government broad powers to ban the app and other technology from China and five other unfriendly nations. Over two dozen states have passed legislation banning TikTok from government-owned devices. And the director of national intelligence said that parents should be worried about their kids using the app.
This week, Congress is hauling TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Zi Chew, in for a grilling about TikTok’s use of data about Americans, its impact on kids and its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.
If only all the tech giants that prey on Americans’ data were getting the same scrutiny and enforced accountability. While Congress has been up in arms about TikTok, it has failed to pass even the most basic comprehensive privacy legislation to protect our data from being misused by all the tech companies that collect and mine it. Congress has also failed to follow the lead of Europe with its recent push to force platforms to be more accountable for the disinformation that they spread.
This whole episode is part of a larger red scare, in which the United States is taking an increasingly confrontational stance against China through economic sanctions imposed in the name of national security. U.S. tech executives and national security leaders have fed into this narrative, warning of an A.I. cold war in which China could surpass the United States in building artificial intelligence.
But when you dig into the national security allegations against TikTok, it is telling that most of the charges could just as easily be levied against the U.S. tech giants. And most of the tech companies’ exploitation of data has not been curbed by the government.
Let’s examine the concerns that have been raised about TikTok:
TikTok is accused of collecting too much data from users’ phones through its app. A rather breathless report from a U.S.-Australian cybersecurity firm last year found that the app can obtain users’ microphone, camera, location, S.M.S. message and other private data.
It’s not surprising that an app that people use to record audio and video would have access to the camera and microphone. But even if TikTok scoops up too much data, it’s no different from most apps out there, many of which are pretty greedy data gobblers. In a 2018 survey of more than 17,000 apps, researchers at Northeastern University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that more than three-quarters of them sought access to sensitive data such as camera, microphone and external storage.
TikTok is also feared because of its power to either promote Chinese propaganda or suppress content that the Chinese government disapproves of. In 2019, The Guardian reported on documents showing that TikTok censored videos related to topics sensitive in China such as the anti-Communist religious movement Falun Gong, Tiananmen Square and Tibetan independence. The company said those guidelines are no longer in use and has since started releasing transparency reports about the types of content that it removes.
TikTok has plenty of company among social networks being accused of abetting government censorship and worse. Facebook has infamously shouldered the blame for allowing speech that helped incite a genocide in Myanmar and an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Facebook was also found to have been used by Russian agents to try to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Many authoritarian regimes have figured out how to game the tech platforms’ rules to get dissident content removed.
TikTok has also been accused of having insecure systems that could allow hackers or its employees to obtain sensitive data. Last year BuzzFeed reported that TikTok engineers in China had repeatedly retrieved data about U.S. TikTok users, despite the company’s claims that it had walled off its U.S. systems. And Forbes reported that TikTok had spied on several journalists; the company fired the employees involved, and the Justice Department is investigating the incident.
Yet securing data from internal threats has been a problem for all the Big Tech companies. Google has fired dozens of employees for data misuse, including obtaining user data. Microsoft admitted to snooping in a blogger’s Hotmail account to see who was leaking internal documents. At Twitter, internal controls were so lax that an ex-employee was convicted of using his access to spy on Saudi dissidents, and a whistle-blower said that the company had hired an employee in India who had used his access to spy on Indian dissidents.
For two years, TikTok has been negotiating with the Treasury Department-led Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to address the concerns about its American operations. TikTok’s proposal, while not perfect, would provide more oversight of the company than other Big Tech companies are subjected to in the United States.
TikTok is setting up a subsidiary in the United States that will be governed by a board that reports to the committee. The subsidiary will make all decisions on user data and content moderation in the United States. Oracle would host TikTok’s data and would be in charge of ensuring that none of it illicitly leaves the United States. (Some data would need to leave the country for legitimate technical reasons.)
A flaw of this plan is that Oracle is one of the biggest data brokers in the world and is not known for its cybersecurity prowess. It probably isn’t the best safeguard for sensitive U.S. data. However, that is easily solvable with another vendor that has to meet strict security and privacy criteria.
The even deeper problem is that putting TikTok under state control, banning it or selling it to a U.S. company wouldn’t solve the threats that the app is said to pose. If China wants to obtain data about U.S. residents, it can still buy it from one of the many unregulated data brokers that sell granular information about all of us. If China wants to influence the American population with disinformation, it can spread lies across the Big Tech platforms just as easily as other nations can.
Not to mention that our national lack of focus on cybersecurity defenses means that it would be much more effective for China to just hack every home’s Wi-Fi router — most of which are manufactured in China and are notoriously insecure — and obtain far more sensitive data than it can get from knowing which videos we swipe on TikTok.
There is also the issue of setting a dangerous precedent. If we ban TikTok, force a sale or place it under state control, it could encourage other nations to ban U.S. tech, force U.S. companies to sell off foreign assets or try to further force tech companies to comply with state censorship.
Left out of all the national security hyperventilating has been the one issue that my teen children have with TikTok: its addictive nature. When I asked my 15-year-old son about a national TikTok ban, he said he had already banned it — in other words, deleted it — from his phone because he can’t stop himself from endless scrolling when he uses the app.
Of course, addiction and distraction are issues with all of the tech platforms, not just TikTok. My son also can get lost in hours and hours of playing Minecraft, watching YouTube videos or chatting on Discord.
A better solution would be to pass laws that force all of our tech to serve us better. Rather than engage in what Evan Greer of the advocacy group Fight for the Future calls “xenophobic showboating,” let’s get serious about demanding true security, privacy and accountability from all of the tech in our lives.
Julia Angwin is an investigative journalist and the author, most recently, of “Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance.”
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