The multi-year narrative of TikTok’s battles in Washington is about to reach an exciting conclusion. Two very different visions of the corporation will be on show as the company’s CEO appears before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday.
TikTok is the product that captured the attention of the young people across the world who spend hours each day watching the snappy, amusing short videos with an almost creepily sophisticated discovery algorithm and a carefully maintained network of top producers.
But, according to the national security establishment of the western world, TikTok is a Trojan horse that, through its Chinese parent business, ByteDance, infiltrates the homes and workplaces of those nations’ residents.
I am currently directing a research lab at Stanford that focuses on online harms, and from my vantage point, there are many valid worries about TikTok. As the chief security officer at Facebook, I had to deal with ongoing state-sponsored attacks from nations all over the world. Nevertheless, those issues go beyond a single business, and the Biden administration is passing up a chance to lead the free world in tackling the larger issue.
In the worldwide effort to gather and manage information, TikTok is but one chess piece. Undoubtedly a significant one, but Washington’s obsession with winning one particular battle has made it oblivious to the wider picture.
The fight between the world’s democracies and a new alliance of autocracies, led by the Chinese Communist Party, which is emerging from the Covid-19 crisis with its most autocratic leader since Mao Zedong and a burning desire to show the power of the People’s Republic both at home and abroad, is clearly just beginning.
The visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to a bruised and embattled Vladimir Putin this week only served to underscore China’s new position by openly defending a Russian leader who had just been charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court. China’s military, which is continuously expanding, is still pushing the envelope and getting ready for conflict with its neighbors and the West in the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait, and disputed Japanese waters.
As China’s extensive intelligence and information warfare divisions serve the nation’s long-term economic and strategic aims, a comparable conflict is being fought online. This involves launching repeated assaults to access the most important Western corporations’ trade secrets and swiftly advancing its capacity to sway public opinion through overt and covert ways.
In response to unrest in Hong Kong and the embarrassing Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China has stepped up its global surveillance, influence, and control efforts. Because of the success of this investment, many analysts—including our Stanford team—now see China as the world leader in this field.
In light of this, concerns regarding TikTok’s impact on national security are valid. Like all other Chinese businesses, ByteDance is bound by laws that demand strict adherence to the demands and edicts of the government. Executives of ByteDance would not be protected by the First Amendment or an independent judiciary if they chose to reject China’s wishes. By taking decisive action against China’s wealthiest and most powerful CEOs, President Xi has demonstrated that.
So, there is no doubt that China might subtly compel TikTok to comply with its demands. In order to provide the impression that pro-Chinese voices are in the ascendant and opponents are unpopular and isolated, it could downrank voices deemed undesirable and covertly alter what users see.
Yet, access to all the data that is obtained during the normal operation of such a massive product poses the greatest risk. Private conversations are not frequently carried by TikTok, though this may change as the app and its user base develop.
Yet, it has a wealth of information regarding the 1.5 billion users, including their demographics, interests, whereabouts, contacts, and gadgets. It has long been alleged that China’s intelligence agencies stole enormous databases from businesses like Equifax, Anthem, and Marriott as well as the clearance information of millions of government employees from the Office of Personnel Management.
These well-known intrusions show how ambitious Chinese intelligence services are when they collect surveillance information on Americans, and TikTok has a big data warehouse.
In his written statement before Congress, Shou Chew, the CEO of TikTok, stated that “ByteDance is not an agency of China or any other country.” He outlined TikTok’s new data security approach, which stores user data from US users with Oracle, an American software giant. I concur with the Biden administration’s rejection of the proposal since, in my experience, these kinds of internal data controls are very difficult to establish and trust.
Whatever the US decides to do with TikTok (requiring ByteDance to sell it, outright banning it, or something else), it won’t be able to stop the spread of Chinese influence and surveillance, so the Biden administration and Congress must take a broader approach.
The access that Beijing or Moscow-based workers of any tech or social media corporation have to the personal information of American people who utilize their services turns out to be unregulated by US law. Also, there is no federal law in place that prohibits the excessive gathering of important data or personally identifiable information.
It’s high time Congress passed a thorough privacy bill. The time has come for Congress and President Biden to establish dependable rules and reclaim their position as the industry’s thought leaders in tech regulation as a result of the proliferation of state privacy laws across the US that are causing chaos for US businesses without addressing some fundamental issues.
Additionally, by doing this, Congress will be able to specify the categories of sensitive information that may be kept or accessed in the United States, by our democratic allies, by neutral nations, and by our enemies.
The sale of the precise types of data that TikTok could supply to the Chinese government would be deterred by a federal privacy regulation from mobile phone networks, adtech firms, and data brokers. Furthermore, any equitable solution to the hazards associated with TikTok should equally be applicable to US intelligence services or to American businesses that export data.
Congress might also establish a legal minimum for the level of transparency social networks must offer to academic researchers and members of civil society on the public content they are carrying. These organizations collaborate with significant American social media companies to identify and analyze political influence operations aimed at both domestic and international politics. They play a crucial role in alerting the public and the media to the kinds of operations that may be directed at them.
Although TikTok has recently begun to address the need for openness, it has historically been challenging for researchers to keep an eye on its platform for this kind of manipulation. While US businesses are frequently more transparent than TikTok, this is solely due to their own free will. Recently, Twitter, a longtime pioneer in transparency, announced an intention to stop allowing external access, which is essential for identifying botnets and influence campaigns.
This national security risk would no longer be subject to the whims of individual internet billionaires thanks to the proposed Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, which would provide an equitable baseline for all businesses.
The US and our allies also need to take the information war seriously, both by safeguarding and assisting journalists who can work independently of any government and by forging civil society alliances that fortify the public’s resistance to the Chinese-style censorship that is encroaching on nations like Turkey and India.
Washington is right to address the immediate threats posed by TikTok’s lone chess piece, but it should also consider the entire board and make plans for the following 20 moves. It is essential to the future of the 21st century.