President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on most issues is often clumsy, unconsidered, and coarse. His opponents take great pleasure in mocking it – on television, in newspapers, on social media, and, of course, on TikTok, a video-sharing application which has taken America’s youth by storm. Teenage users of the application, the story goes, enraged the President with a coordinated campaign to pre-book tickets to his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They then failed to attend, leaving thousands of seats empty. So humiliating was the incident that Mr Trump, bent on revenge, moved quickly to ban the app’s use entirely within the United States. This narrative may have some truth to it. The President is famously thin-skinned and has been known to shape policy based on his interests and passing fancies.
But such a simplistic interpretation of the administration’s campaign to ban TikTok misses the point entirely. Crude though his rhetoric may be, on TikTok – and indeed, on the dangers to American interests, on- and offline, by an increasingly aggressive China – Mr Trump is right.
The threats TikTok poses to American national security, and to the data security of its millions of American users, are myriad. They begin with its ownership. ByteDance, a tech-unicorn worth over $100 million, is headquartered in Beijing and is thus inextricably tied with China’s authoritarian regime and the ever-present Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Evidence abound in the company’s own statements – in 2018, after the forced shutdown of one of its applications, ByteDance’s founder and CEO affirmed his commitment to “socialist core values,” and promised to “further deepen cooperation” with the party. The company’s work to censor content the regime deems unseemly – such as images of concentration camps in Xinjiang – proves that those were not empty promises. Furthermore, ByteDance shares business ties to the government in the form of partnerships with the Ministry of Public Security and various state-owned enterprises. What’s more, like many large Chinese tech companies, ByteDance has an internal party committee, chaired by the company’s vice president, whose members meet regularly to pledge their undying loyalty to the CCP.
These are only a few of ByteDance’s many worrying links to the party apparatus. Even if these connections did not exist, the very nature of China’s regime means that no Chinese company can hope to operate independently of the party’s tendrils. China’s National Intelligence Law, passed in 2017, requires organizations like ByteDance to “support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work.” Refusal would not be an option. When such companies expand internationally, therefore, users’ data from all over the world is at risk of falling into “the hands of the Chinese Communist Party," in the words of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And the data TikTok collects on its users, often without their prior consent, is expansive. For instance, a scandal last year around its Android app revealed that TikTok was secretly collecting users’ MAC addresses, which experts label “a way of enabling long-term tracking of users without any ability to opt-out.” Though the company claims to have halted this practice, its lack of transparency coupled with the fact that its communications with Chinese servers are encrypted means that there is no way of knowing what other data ByteDance collects, and whether or not that data is stored in China.
In an effort to avoid a ban and act on the Trump administration’s demands, TikTok last week agreed in principle to the acquisition of 20% of a spin-off entity called TikTok Global by Oracle and Walmart. Such a deal, however, would fail to overcome the obstacle of continued ByteDance majority ownership. Far more comprehensive arrangements would have to be made to ensure that American users would retain data security. A recent briefing by the RAND corporation outlined what such arrangement could look like: Oracle would need to “lock both the back and front doors” to vulnerabilities by insisting that any deal would allow it to access and inspect TikTok source code, algorithms, and the code of all future software updates, as well as the storage of all user data in US data centres. Another option, of course, though one that is likely unconscionable to ByteDance, is total US ownership of the app, including of TikTok’s much-vaunted algorithm.
Though TikTok remains in US app stores as a result of a district court judge’s injunction on Sunday, which stayed a more immediate ban, no judicial decision was made on the hard deadline of 12 November for a deal to be reached. If no deal is reached by then or does not adhere to the tenets described above, TikTok could face a permanent ban – with ample justification.
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