The Case For Banning TikTok Just Got A Lot Stronger
Did China just pop its own TikTok balloon?
The case for the United States government banning TikTok from doing business in this country just got a hell of a lot stronger.
The media coverage this past week of the surveillance balloon China sent roaming across the continental United States helped to dramatically illustrate the concern elected officials from both sides of the aisle have raised about the Chinese-owned social media sensation.
Republicans and Democrats alike are alarmed at the surveillance capabilities of the app. China’s eye-in-the-sky national tour makes it impossible for the Chinese government to dismiss those concerns as unwarranted.
China’s Social Credit System
Let’s flashback to 2014 for greater perspective.
That’s when I first started reading about the Chinese government’s implementation of a sytematic effort to coerce citizen behavior it deems positive and punish citizens for behavior it doesn’t like.
The system incorporates both governmental and private business elements, though the distinction between the government and private enterprise is cloudier than American minds might think.
Business Insider’s Katie Canales and Aaron Mok report:
The Chinese Communist Party has been constructing a moral ranking system for years that will monitor the behavior of its enormous population — and rank them all based on their "social credit."…The system can be used for individual people, but also for companies and government organizations…For example, Sesame Credit, which is owned by Jack Ma's Ant Group, uses its own unofficial scoring system for its employees, such as studying shopping habits, according to the think tank Merics.
And Wired’s Nicole Kobie shares an example of how it works:
Liu Hu is a journalist in China, writing about censorship and government corruption. Because of his work, Liu has been arrested and fined — and blacklisted. Liu found he was named on a List of Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement by the Supreme People's Court as "not qualified" to buy a plane ticket, and banned from travelling some train lines, buying property, or taking out a loan.
"There was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to," he told The Globe and Mail. "What's really scary is there's nothing you can do about it. You can report to no one. You are stuck in the middle of nowhere."
So the Chinese government has been using technology to control its own citizenry for years now.
But that’s Chinese citizens’ problem. That doesn’t have anything to do with Americans, right?
True, but China apparently has no problem exporting its technological totalitarianism.
In 2018, Reuters’ Angus Berwick reported that in 2008 Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez:
a decade into his self-styled socialist revolution, wanted help to provide ID credentials to the millions of Venezuelans who still lacked basic documentation needed for tasks like voting or opening a bank account. Once in Shenzhen, though, the Venezuelans realized a card could do far more than just identify the recipient.
There, at the headquarters of Chinese telecom giant ZTE Corp, they learned how China, using smart cards, was developing a system that would help Beijing track social, political and economic behavior. Using vast databases to store information gathered with the card’s use, a government could monitor everything from a citizen’s personal finances to medical history and voting activity.
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TikTok Surveillance Of Americans
In 2020, TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas reported:
Until late last year social video app TikTok was using an extra layer of encryption to conceal a tactic for tracking Android users via the MAC address of their device, which skirted Google’s policies and did not allow users to opt out, The Wall Street Journal reports. Users were also not informed of this form of tracking, per its report.
Its analysis found that this concealed tracking ended in November as U.S. scrutiny of the company dialed up, after at least 15 months during which TikTok had been gathering the fixed identifier without users’ knowledge.
A MAC address is a unique and fixed identifier assigned to an internet-connected device — which means it can be repurposed for tracking the individual user for profiling and ad targeting purposes, including by being able to re-link a user who has cleared their advertising ID back to the same device and therefore to all the prior profiling they wanted to jettison.
And just last December, TikTok spied on American journalists according to The Guardian:
TikTok has admitted that it used its own app to spy on reporters as part of an attempt to track down the journalists’ sources, according to an internal email.
The data was accessed by employees of ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company and was used to track the reporters’ physical movements. The company’s chief internal auditor Chris Lepitak, who led the team involved in the operation, has been fired, while his China-based manager Song Ye has resigned.
They looked at IP addresses of journalists who were using the TikTok app in an attempt to learn if they were in the same location as employees suspected of leaking confidential information.
Clearly, Americans aren’t immune from Chinese surveillance via TikTok or otherwise.
So What’s The Harm, Really?
The average TikTok user can be forgiven for dismissing the alarm over the app as just so much techno panic. Most users have already acclimated themselves to the data gathering practices of social platforms and see no harm to themselves personally.
As the favored platform of Gen Z, a large percentage of TikTok users are probably not the news- and policy-junkies like myself and so this discusssion may not even be on their radar.
Media coverage of the risks TikTok poses has missed the real story.
The Washington Post’s Geoffrey A. Fowler has an excellent piece dissecting the facts and fears of what TikTok knows about us but it focuses on consumer rather than societal harm.
Social Media Radicalization
The jury is out on the harm that social media can cause as far as I’m concerned.
We need look no further to the successful radicalization efforts of ISIS and the domestic radicalization via social media of Qanon conspiracies that has resulted in the attack on the United States Capitol and attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power on January 6, 2021.
That radicalization continues. As recently as last October, a man who had been radicalized online assaulted Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband in their home with a hammer.
We’ve seen Russian interference in our elections via social media.
There’s no reason why an adversary such as China wouldn’t try and manipulate Americans for its own geopolitical aims, especially since it has such a powerful tool as TikTok at its disposal.
TikTok’s Sophisticated Algorithm
A Wall Street Journal investigation found that TikTok only needs one important piece of information to figure out what you want: the amount of time you linger over a piece of content. Every second you hesitate or rewatch, the app is tracking you.
The US Military Bans TikTok
The United States military prohibits service members from having TikTok on their mobile devices.
The geolocation data mobile apps collect can obviously be used by adversaries to understand troop movements.
Government TikTok Bans
In December of last year, President Biden signed a law banning TikTok from government owned devices and 27 states have passed such bans.
There is an obvious risk of radicalization for people who hold high positions of trust in our society, such as federal and state elected officials and functionaries and military personnel.
But there is also the intelligence provided by the data TikTok collects that can yield insight into vectors of influence and/or attack.
Contact Syncs & Shadow Profiles
One avenue of gathering such intelligence is the ubiquitous contacts sync feature that social media platforms use to accelerate growth.
You no doubt remember being asked to access your address book when opening a social account.
The feature is useful for users to be able to quickly find their friends and contacts who are already on the social platform. Access to a user’s address book also plays a role in recommending you to those in your contacts who join the platform. Plus, you are often asked to invite people in your address book who have not yet joined the platform.
But there’s another hidden benefit to the platform itself and that is the creation of shadow profiles.
Think about the data that is typically found in an address book record:
Home and/or business address
Social media links
That’s all data that the social media platform gets access to when you allow it. Using that data, the platform can then create a “shadow profile” of that person even if they’ve never create a an account nor plan to.
Gather enough of this contact data, then the platform can create relationship graphs by making connections between people that it wouldn’t have otherwise understood.
With that shadow relationship graph coupled with geolocation data, content consumption insights and more, TikTok could identify social groups that are ripe for targeting with influence operations.
For all of these reasons, I do believe TikTok poses a national security threat to the United States.
Banning the app in the US is the sole thing Donald Trump and I ever agreed on.
Of course, banning the app risks pissing off an entire generation and that’s a political problem.
Short of banning the app, the United States government could force a sale to an American company. This is the most rational solution I can think of to the problem TikTok poses.
There would be no lack of suitors. In 2020, Walmart and Microsoft were contemplating buying TikTok.
That wouldn’t guarantee that an American owner wouldn’t abuse the app (I’m looking at you, Facebook and Twitter) but at least the levers of government regulation would be more powerul if TikTok were in domestic hands.
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What I’m Reading
The Verge - Tweetbot’s devs are back with a Mastodon client
- - For TikTok, though, the scrutiny is existential. This week alone, Australia banned and then un-banned the app on government devices, but an investigation continues. And Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) became the latest lawmaker to call on Apple and Google to remove TikTok from app stores, citing fears Americans’ data could be shared with or manipulated by the government of China, where TikTok’s parent, ByteDance, is located.
It is these same fears that have spurred TikTok to invite a group of American journalists to this, its Transparency and Accountability Center. TikTok is rolling out a public relations/public affairs tactic it has used in other countries when faced with regulation.
Forbes - For years, TikTok has described its powerful For You Page as a personalized feed ranked by an algorithm that predicts your interests based on your behavior in the app.
But that’s not the full story, according to six current and former employees of TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, and internal documents and communications reviewed by Forbes. These sources reveal that in addition to letting the algorithm decide what goes viral, staff at TikTok and ByteDance also secretly hand-pick specific videos and supercharge their distribution, using a practice known internally as “heating.”…Moreover, documents show that staff — including those at TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, and even contractors working with the company — exercise considerable discretion in deciding which content to promote. If TikTok can “heat” videos in the name of creating “viral” TikTok influencers, what’s to prevent the Chinese-owned company from “heating” propaganda intended to influence American domestic politics or international public policy? It’s not like we haven’t seen this movie before on other platforms.
Slate - Joshua Landy noticed the reaction almost immediately. The Toronto critical care physician had posted a video on TikTok explaining the dilemma presented by a 50-year-old patient who needed an MRI. This patient’s X-ray showed his chest riddled with birdshot pellets from a shotgun accident 30 years before. If the pellets were magnetic, the MRI wouldn’t be possible. In the end, a pellet was examined and found to be made of lead, and doctors went ahead with the MRI.
Landy, a former colleague of mine, has long shared deidentified cases with the medical education community. What surprised him about this case was the response: The post has racked up more than 800,000 views, which is more than 300 times his usual reach. The reason, he soon realized, was his error. In his commentary, he had referred to the projectiles as buckshot. To date, more than 1,600 people have called him out on the ammo inaccuracy. Planting deliberate mistakes to juice engagement. Nice.
BuzzFeed News - The number of people using Twitter in the US has decreased almost 9% since Elon Musk took over, according to a recent study. In October 2022, just before Musk took ownership, the study found, 32.4% of Americans were using Twitter. In December and January, that figure had dropped to 29.5%. Shocking, I know.
TechCrunch - Another decentralized social networking application to challenge Twitter has hit the App Store. Last year, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey donated around $245,000 in bitcoin (then roughly 14 BTC) to fund the development of an open and decentralized social networking protocol known as Nostr, which is based on cryptographic key pairs. Now, the first mobile app to leverage the protocol, Damus, has been published on the App Store, allowing anyone to try out the new technology. Another Twitter competitor. Just downloaded it and created an account. It’s pretty confusing…but I guess that’s just the nature of the fediverse.
- - Do you use subtitles with movies, shows, or live TV even though your hearing is pretty typical? I do.
And although it could be a sign of hearing loss that you need words with your pictures, there's actually a lot happening with digital audio engineering that could be the culprit. And I just thought I was getting old!
- - The Frogs, an ‘old’ comedy play by Aristophanes, was performed in 405 BCE at the Lenaia festival of Dionysus. With the Peloponnesian War raging on, plays of the time had a tendency to deal with saving the state, matters of right and wrong, and background events of the war itself. Writers focused on political themes, pushing the idea that a poet has the ability to save the state from war. This is great on its own but I absolutely HAD to read it because my Xbox handle is FrogsOfWar. 🤣
Search Engine Land - A former employee allegedly leaked a Yandex source code repository, part of which contained more than 1,900 factors used by the search engines for ranking websites in search results. Actual direct evidence of search engine ranking factors. That’s the holy grail for us SEOs.
BuzzFeed News - At first, Zimmerman was astonished at the level of detail. Faces, skin, hair, and clothes looked photorealistic — although slightly plastic, as later pointed out by some observers — and the expressions were exactly what he had asked for. But the closer he looked, the weirder the pictures seemed. A smiling woman posing for a picture with a friend and holding a point-and-shoot camera had a bunch of extra fingers on her left hand. There were a total of nine, to be exact. Another one had the correct number of digits, except that they were freakishly long. Nearly everyone had too many teeth. I read a persuasive comment—I don’t remember where—that the problem is simply that generatvie AI just can’t count.
CNET - Once upon a time, a man in Ontario was rummaging through the backseat of a white car. I don't know what he was looking for, but one day, he would become known as Tripod Man. Tripod Man earned his nickname not because of his photography skills but because someone at Google stitched together images of him in such a way that he, himself, looked like a tripod. Then they published the photos on the internet. This is the chaos of Google Street View. The Google Street View team once captured my Jeep Wrangler near a park where I used to play football. That’s as close as I’ve ever got to being Google Street View Famous.
Joseph Campbell: The Hero With A Thousand Faces - Comparative mythology detailing the hero’s journey as told throughout history and across cultures. It’s a fascinating but difficult read; Campbell’s prose is turgid.
What I’m Listening To
In The Bubble - The pandemic has caused many of us to ask ourselves what is truly important in our lives. What makes us happy? To answer that question, Andy brings on Robert Waldinger, who has done the longest research that's ever been completed on happiness. He and his team at Harvard Medical School have studied more than 700 families for 85 years, tracing their ups, downs, and in-betweens. They dig into what the results teach us about the ways we should live our lives and Robert shares some practical ways to turn unhappiness around. Happiness is such an under-researched topic.
Social Media Examiner - AI tools bring a lot of benefits for content creators. The smart money says that AI won’t replace creative workers. Instead, creative people who understand how to use AI will replace those who ignore the technology. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to listen to the episode.
What I’m Watching
The Liberator - An animated WWII series from Netflix. I just love the style of animation they use.