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The Clock is TikToking

The threat from China is real and America needs a plan. 

Is Joe Biden weak on China? Tens of millions of Americans certainly think so. In the past, the Sleepy Joe moniker has been criticized. However, when it comes to recognizing the threat posed by China, Biden’s somnambulism is clear for all to see.

At the recent G7 summit, Biden pleaded with world leaders to unite against China. Yet, just a few days prior to this, the president signed an executive order revoking Trump-era bans on TikTok and WeChat, two spy tools favored by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Actions, as they say, speak louder than words, and Biden’s executive order spoke volumes.

With 100 million users in the United States, TikTok is a ridiculously popular social media platform. With graphic content easy to come by, it’s also an unsafe one. Now, though, things appear to be getting considerably worse. Earlier this month, TikTok introduced a string of new U.S. based privacy policies. From now on, the app will collect the “faceprints” and “voiceprints” of customers in the United States. The former is comparable to a unique fingerprint (but for your face), while the latter involves collecting unique vocal characteristics.

Why does TikTok, a company with headquarters in China’s capital city, Beijing, require such information? Is Bytedance collecting this data for the CCP? This is not a ludicrous question to ask. After all, the new policies were introduced at the same time as the CCP ordered its biggest tech companies, including ByteDance, to share their data with government representatives. China has a history of weaponizing biometric data, even using it to surveil and torment minority groups in Xinjiang Province.

Human rights groups have issued statements in the past warning world leaders that the CCP is intent on bolstering its already sizable biometric database by whatever means possible. Why would it not use TikTok? With the average person spending close to 90 minutes a day using the app (the equivalent of about 2 full days each month), one shudders to think about the ways in which all this data may be misused.

But TikTok is just one part of the problem. Another company that has been ordered to hand over its data by the Chinese government is Tencent, owner of WeChat, a popular messaging app. In January of this year, Californian attorneys filed a lawsuit against the Chinese company, accusing it of using its messaging app to closely monitor and censor its users. If the CCP is surveilling users in California, are they also monitoring users in other states? With 1.48 million customers in America, this is an important question that needs answering.

The lawsuit reads, “For all that a WeChat user can do on the WeChat platform, what they cannot readily do—including in California—is send messages perceived as critical of the Party-state.” Why? Because every single conversation is monitored. According to the suit, critical messages “tend to be blocked, censored, deleted, and can lead to the blocking, suspension, or deletion of the user’s account.”

With sizeable stakes in the likes of Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group, two of the biggest music conglomerates in the world, Tencent is much more than a messaging app company. It is a huge, multinational corporation. Pony Ma, the company’s CEO, is worth $75 billion, making him one of the wealthiest men in East Asia, and by extension, one of the more powerful.

TikTok and WeChat are Trojan Horses. With both apps, the spying appears to be a feature, not a bug. As I.T. security expert Stefan Strobel has noted, the developers of these apps have “built back doors” and “spy functions” in order to collect lots of data that is then sent back to Chinese officials. Why is it being sent back?

The Chinese government has been collecting vast amounts of vocal and facial data for years. This data is fed into A.I. algorithms, thus making the technology “smarter.” Today, China exports this kind of technology all around the world. Are Americans’ voices and faces being used to train these algorithms? Again, this is not a ludicrous question to ask. To “train” these algorithms effectively, a diverse range of vocal and facial patterns are needed. And the United States is one of the more ethnically and racially diverse countries in the world.

It’s become fashionable for those on the left – particularly the far, far, left – to label genuine concerns and sensible questions xenophobic. If in doubt, just ask Jon Stewart, a man who had the audacity to speak about the lab leak hypothesis on CBS. For this, rather predictably, numerous commentators castigated the comedian. Although the evidence appears to be on Stewart’s side, and the audience very much appeared to be on his side, he expressed views that challenged the mainstream narrative. Also, it is important to remember that Stewart was not criticizing the Chinese people; he was criticizing secretive, deceptive practices, which may very well have resulted in the loss of millions of lives around the world. A call to ban WeChat and TikTok is not xenophobic. In fact, on the evidence we have, a call to ban both of these apps is rather logical. Alas, in this age of dog-themed coins and faux-outrage, there is little room for logic.

The Trump administration issued executive orders on TikTok and WeChat for a very specific reason: both were, and still are, national security concerns. Last September, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross warned Americans that “China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data” needed to be stopped. “National values” and “democratic rules-based norms” were being violated. Biden, however, doesn’t appear to share these views. On Monday, Reuters reported that the U.S Commerce Department intends to rescind “a list of prohibited transactions with TikTok and WeChat” that were issued by the Trump administration. By lowering the security flag, Biden has shown himself to be a weak leader. His inability to see the dangers posed by Chinese-backed technology is understandable, when one realizes that Biden appears to be asleep.

The author Ralph Ellison once said that “there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.” When the somnambulist happens to be the president of a country, the disorder becomes a national concern. The apps need to be banned, and Biden needs to wake up. 

John Mac Ghlionn is a researcher and essayist. His work has been published by the likes of bitcoin magazine, New York PostSouth China Morning Post, and the Sydney Morning Herald.

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