TIPP: TikTok – the trojan threatening America

(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

By TIPPINSIGHTS EDITORIAL BOARD, TIPP Insights

The Chinese state’s intrusion into American institutions and society is a multi-faceted menace. Setting up clandestine police stations on U.S. soil is just one aspect of Beijing’s agenda. More broadly, China uses everyday technology and devices to influence American thinking and create a more Beijing-friendly narrative.

Recently, Forbes magazine brought to light attempts by a popular social media platform – TikTok – to access certain U.S. users’ location data without their knowledge or consent. The report stated that the “parent company, ByteDance, planned to use the TikTok app to monitor the personal location of some specific American citizens.” The project was to be carried out by the Internal Audit and Risk Control department based in Beijing. To protect its sources, the publication withheld “the nature and purpose of the planned surveillance.”

According to its official site, TikTok is a short-form video hosting service owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. TikTok is a private company on paper, but no business is entirely private there. The arms of the ruling Communist Party are ever-present, and its directives are never ignored.

In 2021, the Chinese government took a minority stake and a seat on the board of TikTok. A Chinese corporate registry data service, Tianyancha, reported that “ByteDance Technology Co. had sold a one percent stake to state-owned firm Internet Investment Chinese (Beijing) Technology.” Wu Shugang, a government official, became a board member following the deal. So much for private ownership!

TikTok has more than one billion monthly active users, making it the most popular social media platform as of 2022. Around 87 million Americans are believed to use the app. Interestingly though, TikTok is not available in China!

The popular mobile entertainment app is a virtual gold mine of data. Cyber-security firm Internet 2.0 recently reported on its “excessive” data collection regimen. While every app collects data and personal information to some degree, TikTok’s reach is much farther than many know. Besides browser trackers that reveal the user’s internet activity, the app can also employ fingerprinting techniques to identify specific users. That all this is carried out without the user’s explicit consent or knowledge makes for an uneasy feeling. Furthermore, given the nexus between the Chinese government and big tech, the user data may very well be accessible to Beijing.

The Forbes report has brought data security and user privacy to the forefront. Foreign interference and influence, especially in the political sphere, is a serious threat that cannot be ignored. During the recently concluded midterm elections, the platform was used to create and spread misinformation. Videos attacking politicians, especially Republican candidates, were traced to Chinese Communist Party-backed profiles and accounts.

The renewed attention on the threat posed by TikTok will likely bring further focus to matters of online privacy and user rights. For now, bipartisan calls for action range from banning the app like President Trump did or orchestrating an American buyout of the company. Sen. Rubio told a media outlet that “TikTok needs to divest itself of any Chinese ownership or influence whatsoever or be banned from operating in the United States.”

Faced with the backlash, the company spokesperson Jamie Favazza in a statement, said, “We continue to speak to experts around the world to inform the ongoing development and roll out of our global state-controlled media policy and product features. It’s our goal to ensure we’re developing comprehensive and thoughtful policies and features that serve our community.”

The communiqué stated: “Since we began our pilot program this year in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, we’ve expanded our approach to label both videos and profile pages, and improved visibility of the label on content through better positioning and design. We plan to introduce our state-controlled media policy and corresponding labels globally next year as part of our continued focus on media literacy. As we previously confirmed, the global rollout will include China state media.”

As social media platforms become an indispensable and integral part of our lives, user education is as vital as regulations and stipulations. Americans must be educated on their rights and choices. Each device user must know how to protect their identity and personal information online.

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