Trump, China, Privacy, and TikTok

Trump, China, Privacy, and TikTok

There’s been a lot going on in the news cycle lately, which means that some big stories have fallen under the radar, and for this article I thought I would take the opportunity today to talk about what’s going on with Trump, China, and TikTok.

This is a complicated situation and a developing story, I’ve seen a lot of hot takes on these issues, so this piece is going to be all about what’s actually going on, how we should respond, and how I expect it to play out over the rest of the year and even into 2021. And look, even if you don’t use the TikTok app or you don’t care about apps or social media, this issue is about something bigger than just TikTok, so don’t tune out just because you have no idea what TikTok is.

What is TikTok?

But what is TikTok?  It’s basically just an app where people can share short videos of themselves with music playing in the background, that’s basically it.

Privacy concerns

Now the problem with TikTok is that a lot of experts are concerned about privacy within the app, obviously that’s an issue with any social media platform, but there has been a tougher response to and scrutiny of TikTok’s privacy policy because TikTok is owned by a China-based company called ByteDance.

And obviously when you download an app, that app gets access to all kinds of data about you, that goes not only for TikTok but also Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, what have you, but the difference is that TikTok is owned by a Chinese company.  So as a result — and I’m going to talk about this more later — the Trump administration via executive order has essentially threatened to ban it.

What about American social media platforms?

But before we get into TikTok specifically, let’s talk about online privacy in general. As I mentioned, one of the main issues with social media apps and websites with respect to privacy is that gathering information about their audiences is typically part of the business model. If you’re on Facebook, for example, they have something called the Facebook Pixel, and basically companies can add this pixel to their website in order to track visitor activity.

Facebook Pixel

So if you visit a website, that information could be stored via the Facebook Pixel, and that’s why you might see another ad for that same company the next time you go on Facebook. Of course you agree to all this when you sign up or connect your Facebook account to an app, so it’s not exactly underhanded or anything like that, but still you may not realize exactly where your data is going or who could have access to it.

Security breaches and violent content

Now on top of that there are also more severe oversights. So not just using your data for marketing or something like that, but going further by sharing it in improper ways or failing to moderate the platform.

Facebook and the Rohingya genocide

So a really well-known example of this is the fact that Facebook was used to promote the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, mostly because they didn’t have the moderation in place to remove posts that might incite violence.

Cambridge Analytica

And of course there was the huge scandal with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, some of you have probably heard of that. Essentially Cambridge Analytica was a consulting firm that received private information on more than fifty million Facebook users, and almost none of them had actually consented to having their data used in that way.

It’s important to point out here that this wasn’t a hack or something like that, this was someone pulling data that they had access to and giving it to a third party without getting permission from users. Now that didn’t involve TikTok, but I just want to point out that social media privacy has been a major concern for a long time. And in fact Facebook had to pay a five-billion dollar fine as part of the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica situation.

Why is TikTok under fire?

So big social media platforms have been punished in the past, but obviously banning them entirely like the United States has threatened with TikTok — I’ll talk more about that in a minute — but obviously banning them is a much stronger measure than just imposing a one-time fine or something like that. And that’s important here because when you see Facebook have a huge scandal and only get fined, it might look like they’re getting special treatment as an American company whereas TikTok is facing more scrutiny due to our tensions with China.

That impression made even more sense when Trump pushed for TikTok to sell to Microsoft or another American brand in order to avoid the ban.  But on September 13th Microsoft announced that ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, had rejected its bid — and now TikTok has actually announced a planned partnership with Oracle and Walmart that I’ll talk about in a minute, which made it seem like they might find a way to get back on Trump’s good side.

Is TikTok really worse than Facebook?

Now, you might be wondering whether TikTok is being banned because it’s truly a threatening app with concerning privacy policies or because of American tensions with China, and honestly it seems to me like a little of both.

Security policies

Again this is a charged topic, and there’s a lot of political fallout to consider, but the Washington Post published an analysis of the TikTok app and its security practices to determine whether it’s really as bad as the Trump administration is saying.

Essentially they found that TikTok has access to the contents of your private messages, and they can also extract your location, IP address, device type, contacts, phone number, and age. Sure that sounds like a lot, and it is, but at the same time it doesn’t seem any worse than what we’ve seen with Facebook or any other American social media platform.

Facebook can pull a lot of information from your device, for example your birthday, your phone number, your contacts, your location, and your political views, and it can even track your activity on other websites in order to target you with ads when you come back to Facebook. So in my view even though TikTok is invasive, it doesn’t seem to be that much worse than any other social network, and I think the main concern is simply that it’s tied to China. As you know I don’t want to get too political, our relationship with China is way too complex to cover in one article, but I think it’s clear that an American app that collected the same data points would never have to worry about being banned.

Vulnerabilities

Now around the beginning of the year a firm called Check Point Research revealed vulnerabilities in the TikTok platform that could allow outside attacks. They’ve fixed the problems since then, but if you check out the report you’ll see that it was really easy for them to send fake messages that looked like they were coming from TikTok.

There was also another report in June 2020 which found that TikTok was looking at users’ clipboards. For example, if you copy something on your phone to paste it in another app then TikTok might be able to see that content.

So the app itself doesn’t have a perfect security record, but again Facebook and other platforms have their own issues here. Between about fifty and ninety million Facebook accounts were hacked in 2018, and unlike the situation with TikTok this hack actually gave attackers direct access to those accounts. And obviously Facebook was never banned or anything like that, so again whether or not you think it makes sense to ban TikTok, I think that conversation is mostly about concerns with China rather than some glaring weakness in their security.

Censorship?

The US government has also looked at TikTok for potentially censoring content for the Chinese government, but in general they’re most concerned with the possibility of China collecting data on American citizens.

So the potential sale to Microsoft that eventually fell through and the deal with Oracle that came out later weren’t necessarily about TikTok being vulnerable to hacks or something like that, they were really ways for TikTok to demonstrate that it’s willing to play by our rules, particularly if they were taken over by an established American brand.

TikTok and WeChat banned by the Department of Commerce

But on September 18th the Department of Commerce announced a forthcoming ban on both TikTok and WeChat, which is another popular Chinese app that covers messaging, sending payments back and forth, some social media features, things like that.

That ban would have come into effect on September 20th by preventing users from downloading or updating the app. It would also make November 12th the date when it would be illegal for internet-service providers to enable “the functioning or optimization” of TikTok.

TikTok’s response

And almost immediately, TikTok issued a statement, saying, “We’ve already committed to unprecedented levels of additional transparency and accountability well beyond what other apps are willing to do, including third-party audits, verification of code security, and US government oversight of US data security. We will continue to challenge the executive order, which was enacted without due process and threatens to deprive American people and small businesses across the US of a significant platform for both a voice and livelihoods.”

Oracle and Walmart

But yesterday, Trump said that he has approved a deal “in concept” between TikTok’s owner ByteDance, Oracle, and Walmart, which would temporarily at least avoid the download and update ban on TikTok.

Now if you aren’t familiar with Oracle, it’s a tech company based in the San Francisco Bay Area, they work on things like cloud infrastructure, digital security, and analytics, and this deal would create a new U.S.-based company called TikTok Global of which Oracle and Walmart would own twenty percent.

So if this deal goes through, it wouldn’t really be a full-on sale of TikTok, but it would just make Oracle a part-owner and a “trusted tech partner,” so presumably they would be in a consulting role or something like that, but Oracle is not taking over the company or anything like that.

And Trump said he was okay with the agreement “in concept,” it had “his blessing,” so it’s not like this has been approved in detail or anything like that, but obviously it’s a good sign in terms of working out a deal in the near future.

TikTok Global

Furthermore, TikTok is at least supposedly planning to create TikTok Global headquarters in Texas and hire twenty-five thousand American workers, which obviously provides motivation for Trump to let this happen.

They would be letting Oracle host all of their data while managing security, giving American politicians peace of mind in terms of user data being transferred to China. And on top of that Oracle would also get access to all TikTok source code, which will help them determine which pieces of information TikTok is extracting and where that data is going.

Unfortunately Trump has kind of muddied the waters here, he said that the deal will have “nothing to do with China” and that “all of the control is Walmart and Oracle,” which just isn’t true. Yes they would have a substantial stake in TikTok, and yes, Oracle would be taking care of the data, but twenty percent isn’t enough to take over control of the company.

So right now it’s impossible to say whether Trump is just appealing to his base or whether there’s going to be yet another conflict over who ends up with the controlling stake of TikTok. And of course all of this depends on the Chinese government approving the deal on their end, so even though a lot has happened over the last few weeks that doesn’t mean we’ve moved that much closer to a clear resolution.

Next steps

OK so that’s where we are as of September 20th, but that doesn’t mean that anything is settled yet. As I said earlier, the President directing the Department of Commerce to ban a mobile app is a complicated situation, and it brings up a lot of questions about presidential authority over commerce, but of course there is the issue of national security here as well.

Of course there’s another layer to it with the election coming up, I don’t know if Biden would pursue the same course of action, but he did tell his campaign staff to delete TikTok from their phones, so obviously he’s aware of the privacy concerns.

And at a campaign stop on September 18th Biden also called it a “matter of genuine concern” that “TikTok, a Chinese operation, has access to over 100 million young people particularly in the United States of America.” He didn’t talk about their security or anything like that, he just said he’s concerned that any Chinese business would have access to that much information on American citizens. So even in these polarized times there’s something of a bipartisan consensus that Chinese companies pose a credible threat to Americans. And again I don’t want to tell you whether that’s right or wrong, but I just think it’s interesting that both candidates frame this as an issue of Chinese companies extracting data from American users.

This story has taken a new turn every few days, so it’s almost impossible to predict what an eventual resolution will look like. But I think I’ve covered the most important points that have come up so far.

Either way this is obviously a complex subject, I’m sure many of you know a lot more about privacy and security than I do, so it would be great to read some of your thoughts in the comments, both for my own interest and for any other readers who might want to see some more perspectives. All right, as always thanks so much for reading, I really appreciate it, and make sure to stay tuned for more updates.

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