Last week, President Donald Trump threatened to ban the popular social media platform TikTok, whose corporate owner is a Chinese company with alleged ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Trump’s stated grounds for seeking to ban the popular application was that the app threatens U.S. national security. But exactly how?
I must confess I’m not a regular user of TikTok, but my adult children are. TikTok, which has several billion subscribers, allows users to create and share short videos—people impersonating president Trump, dog and cat videos, etc.—ranging from the benign to the puerile. So how is it that the application threatens national security?
The short answer is data—or more significantly, data privacy. Or, even more significantly, the unenforceability of data privacy policies.
Tik Tok, like almost every other social media and internet application, collects data on massive numbers of subscribers. It “knows” who they are, what they like, what they dislike, what they post and what they view. It also knows where they are when they are using the app (and often when they are not), what their IP address is, what kind of browser or phone they are using and a host of other details. Its customers are its product.
Again, on the surface, it’s pretty anodyne stuff. So why the “national security” tag? I mean, does information about dogs in pajamas really threaten to bring down the world’s longest-lasting democracy?
Knowledge Is Power
The short answer has little to do with the fact that TikTok’s parent company is Chinese-owned and has more to do with the power of information—particularly personal information. Information about people’s likes and dislikes, members of their family, facial recognition, travel, location, politics, finances, sexual orientation, friends, education, employment, search history and intimate connections are the kinds of things that used to take months or years for spies to collect and cultivate. Now it’s a few mouse clicks away. It is rife with potential for misuse and abuse. In fact, it’s often impossible to tell the difference between “appropriate” and “inappropriate” use of such data. Let’s face it, you are being surveilled—maybe by Facebook, maybe by Proctor & Gamble, maybe by the Coca-Cola Co., maybe by the Chinese Communist Party. And you are making it very easy to be surveilled. You post on Facebook, you share on LinkedIn and you tweet. And, if you are below a certain age, you use TikTok.
Using data as a weapon is nothing new. Scraping and analyzing data can help intelligence agencies profile and target people for recruitment or intimidation. LinkedIn and Indeed can be used to gather information about people with high-level security clearances. Facebook and Twitter and other social media can be the source for massive facial recognition programs such as Clearview AI. Under current U.S. law, most of this data is entitled to little if any legal protection, provided that the anodyne and amorphous privacy policies can be said to provide some modicum of notice to the data subjects that their data is being collected and that it might be used. It is that issue that needs to be addressed: a firm and unshakable commitment to protect the privacy of social media information. With openness and completeness.