TikTok Isn’t a Threat to Our Privacy and Security, But the NSA Is
The Trump administration's campaign against the Chinese-owned service reminds us that our own government abused user data.
The Trump administration has made mounting hostility towards China one of the top issues of the election year, and seemingly no aspect of the relationship has been spared. From railing against large cell phone company Huawei in early 2020 to threatening app developer ByteDance over TikTok and WeChat, the U.S. has been very deliberate in trying to accuse Chinese tech companies of threatening global privacy as well as national security.
Underpinning this allegation is the idea that being a Chinese company is tantamount to being part of the Chinese military. Despite a conspicuous lack of evidence of any wrongdoing, the assumption is that the government in Beijing can, and therefore does, force Chinese companies to provide them with access to data and backdoors into hardware and software.
It all started with aggressive moves against Huawei, convincing Canada to arrest the company’s chief financial officer, then sending the State Department on a global campaign to warn countries against using Huawei to provide 5G infrastructure, though indications were that they were the cheapest. The U.S. claimed China would use this for eavesdropping, though again there was no evidence to support that.
Yet it made all the sense in the world to the U.S. that China would do that, because leaks out of the NSA showed that Washington had used that same leverage on American companies to do the same thing. Indeed, its hard to think that the resentment against Huawei wasn’t at least in part because they were cutting into American market-share and making U.S. eavesdropping less widespread.
The United States was so desperate to try to maintain this option, they were openly discussing nationalizing Nokia and Ericsson, two other 5G companies, to subsidize them into competing. This was particularly galling because the two businesses aren’t even American in the first place.
The vilification of Huawei continues, and along with it have come claims that Chinese companies are violating American intellectual property. The evidence on this is shaky in its own right, built around the reality that the two nations have different regulations and that this leads to differences of opinion.
The economic problems really started picking up again in August, with threats against ByteDance company’s TikTok. The allegations were that TikTok, and later WeChat, were keeping an ordinary amount of data on application users, and since ByteDance is a Chinese company, this meant the Chinese government could farm that data for nefarious reasons.
Here, too, the source of the suspicion is less what ByteDance is doing than what the NSA did. Edward Snowden’s leaks showed that the PRISM program forced major American companies to provide them with unconstitutionally broad amounts of data. The NSA benefited from U.S.-based companies with large collections of applications being forced to play ball on letting them root around in their data. In the cases of some companies, like Yahoo, the NSA managed to coerce them into illegally searching the data and passing on the results.
Given all of this, it makes total sense that the United States government would imagine that China would be exploiting ByteDance in the same way, though again there is no evidence China ever even attempted to do anything like this, and ByteDance assured end users it was not a threat.
The Trump administration’s solution is further evidence of what was going on: demanding TikTok be sold to an American company and operated on U.S. soil where it would become vulnerable to U.S. data access instead.
Arguably this is a bigger danger to the end user, because while China appears not to have approached ByteDance even once, the U.S. has routinely hit up major tech companies on fishing expeditions. Adding insult to injury, President Trump suggested that America should get a large chunk of the purchase price simply for allowing the sale.
Microsoft was originally tapped by the U.S. to buy it, but it was Oracle that made a deal, allowing ByteDance to retain majority ownership but forcing them to move TikTok to the United States. The location of the servers is everything for the surveillance-minded, and if nothing else, Washington will by hook or by crook force them to relocate to a U.S. jurisdiction.
Since it worked in this case, expect the U.S. to try to fall back on this tactic in the future, both as a way of accusing China of things it didn’t do and to try to force more companies to relocate.
This may ultimately backfire, forcing end users to demand major companies to relocate their servers to more secure jurisdictions, and in the process reminding everybody once again that the U.S., and the NSA in particular, abused user data and that there has been no proper reform.
Jason Ditz is news editor at Antiwar.com, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause of non-interventionism. His work has appeared in Forbes, the Toronto Star, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Providence Journal, the Daily Caller, The American Conservative, The Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.