Spies Like Us

The US congress is considering legislation that would ban TikTok in the United States.

TikTok is an app that lets people create and share short videos. It’s used almost exclusively on mobile phones, and it includes filters, stickers, sound effects, and lots of other candy to help people easily create and share creative content.

In other words, it’s very similar to dozens of other apps. People use it to make interesting stuff, connect with others, and share ideas, adventures, and opinions using their phones. It’s like Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook. It’s just one of a whole bunch of social media apps.

But we’re talking about banning this one. We’re having hearings about it. Their CEO, Shou Chew, testified before a congressional committee last week. Lawmakers are convinced that the app is a national security threat because it’s owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance. Because it’s a Chinese company, it is subject to Chinese laws. Those laws could compel the company to share data collected through the app with the Chinese government. The app collects a lot of personal data. And it’s used by a lot of Americans.

Image credit: Dawnaie on DeviantArt

There isn’t any evidence that TikTok is sharing data with the Chinese government. Chew has said publicly that the company has never shared data with the Chinese government, and that they would refuse any such request. But there’s no real way to prove that. So the Americans are concerned.

This is a very strange place to draw a line in the sand.

We are totally fine with every social media app in the world spying on users, harvesting data, and using it for whatever they want. Security and privacy advocates are constantly warning us about this, but every time we install a new app or register for a new service, we click “I agree” and blindly move one. All of these apps are built on one of two platforms, both of which permit and encourage the collection of personal data. Both the Apple and the Google ecosystems are specifically designed to allow app developers to gather all kinds of information about us that can be used in both innocuous and nefarious ways. We give people the option of opting out. All you have to do is click the “Disagree” button when installing or updating the software. Of course, that means you can’t use the software. And in some cases, it means the hardware won’t work either.

If we ban TikTok because it’s a Chinese company collecting personal data from Americans, shouldn’t we also be prepared for every other country in the world to ban the American social media apps, and the platforms they’re built on? There’s no way to prove that Apple isn’t collecting personal data from iPhone users around the world and sharing it with the US Government. With various agencies actively using social media to gather intelligence and evidence, it’s very possible that more covert activities are also in use. While I haven’t seen any recent reports, there were some pretty Orwellian provisions in the Patriot Act that let the government access all kinds of data, often prohibiting the companies providing it from disclosing the fact that they were sharing it.

Maybe the better approach is to take a step back. Maybe instead of banning TikTok, we should put some pressure on the platforms themselves to stop collecting all this data, and stop making it trivial for app developers to harvest it.