TikTok Is China’s Trojan Horse

(Illustration: Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
Joe Biden is wrong to renege on Trump’s attempt to restrict the dangerous Chinese social-media app.

More than one in three Americans believe that Joe Biden is weak on China. With the president recently opting to revoke a Trump-era attempt to ban Chinese-owned apps, their beliefs appear to be valid.

TikTok, one of the apps Biden decided not to ban, is one of the fastest growing social-media platforms in the world. It also appears to be very dangerous. If you are in doubt, please take some time to read the app’s new U.S.-based privacy policies. Here, you will read about the ways in which TikTok plans to collect biometric identifiers and biometric information. The data being collected include “faceprints,” which are digitally recorded representations of a person’s face, and “voiceprints,” which are digital recordings of a person’s unique vocal characteristics. Why does a Chinese-owned app need this information, and why specifically from American users? This “privacy” policy certainly sounds anything but private. In fact, it sounds downright invasive.

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, one of the most influential companies in China. Ten months ago, President Trump’s administration dubbed TikTok a national-security threat. It ordered ByteDance to divest its business, a move that subsequently sparked a bidding war between the likes of Microsoft and Oracle. In February of this year, however, the Wall Street Journal reported that a deal involving the sale of TikTok to Oracle and Walmart was no longer on the table. In its current form, ByteDance is very much a Chinese-owned entity.

Zhang Yiming, the man behind ByteDance, is one of the wealthiest people in China. He may very well be “transitioning” to a new role within the company in a few months, but right now, he’s the main man at ByteDance, and one of the main men in Beijing, where he lives and where ByteDance’s headquarters are located.

Who else has headquarters in Beijing? The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and if there’s one thing the CCP loves it’s monitoring its citizens. These two organizations may share more than a city, however: They may be sharing data.

As Human Rights Watch has warned in the past, the Chinese government has been collecting highly personal data for years, all in an effort to bolster its biometric database. As the CCP exerts more influence internationally, could the CCP be using one of the most popular apps in the world to bolster its levels of mass surveillance and data harvesting? Is TikTok actually a Trojan horse? There is every reason to think so.

The Chinese government has called on its biggest tech companies, including ByteDance, to “open up the data they collect from social media, e-commerce and other businesses,” according to journalist Lingling Wei.

And, with 100 million monthly TikTok users across the U.S, ByteDance would provide the CCP with an inconceivable amount of highly personal information. This, of course, is worrying on many levels. Of all the 195 countries in the world, when it comes to use of invasive and abusive technologies, China is by far the worst offender. With more than 200 million CCTV cameras across the country — four times more than in the United States — the CCP monitors its citizens’ every move, punishing them for the most innocuous of offenses. With ByteDance, the apple doesn’t fall far from the all-seeing tree. The company recently released a “smart homework lamp,” with two built-in cameras, that monitors children as they study. How comforting.

Not surprisingly, as China sets its sights on becoming a global superpower, the CCP’s focus on the use of invasive technology has become even more intense. And ByteDance, the darling of China’s tech scene, is very much the center of attention. As the South China Morning Post recently noted, the company “is making a full-frontal assault” on China’s market, as it “seeks to gain top spot in the country’s cyberspace realm.” How is it doing this? By using its “powerful algorithms” to “hoover up” as many users and as much data as possible. TikTok is its most valuable asset. Last year, the app generated more than $420 million in global revenue. In the years to come, expect that number to increase considerably. This Trojan horse is also a cash cow.

From Ecuador to Ethiopia, Guyana to Ghana, the Chinese government is in the business of collecting biometric data. Again, if in doubt, feel free to check out this study, titled “China Standards 2035,” which focuses on the many ways in which artificial intelligence and Big Data can help the country become the (emphasis mine) dominant world power.

Chinese companies appear to be using their technology in subversive ways. Their typical strategy is to enter a country indirectly via apps and dodgy devices, make vast amounts of money, and pinch as much data as possible. Which brings us back to TikTok. Why is it looking to collect such vast amounts of biometric data from American users? Worryingly, the new privacy policies fail to provide any logical answers whatsoever.

Considering that only a handful of states across the U.S. have solid biometric-privacy laws in place, the abuse of data is a very real threat. As Human Rights Watch has stated, technology companies “have a human rights responsibility to ensure that their products and services do not contribute to human rights abuses, including violations of privacy and fair trial rights.” What guarantees do Americans have? Absolutely none.

Biden’s recent decision to revoke Trump’s call for a ban is as dumbfounding as it is dangerous. There is reason to believe that TikTok is being weaponized by the CCP. This is not hyperbole. Remember the major security concerns surrounding Huawei and the legitimate fears of corporate espionage? More recently, in April of this year, the writer and researcher Gordon G. Chang documented the ways in which the Chinese government uses technology to spy on Canadian citizens. Why would anyone assume that the CCP is not doing the same to citizens of the United States, its No. 1 enemy? In fact, there is evidence to suggest that this has already occurred. In December of 2020, Stephanie Kirchgaessner, a reporter with The Guardian, wrote an article documenting the ways in which Chinese officials “used mobile phone networks in the Caribbean to surveil US mobile phone subscribers as part of its espionage campaign against Americans.” This is the art of modern warfare. Think Sun Tzu meets social media. If TikTok is, in fact, a Trojan horse, this makes the United States Troy. And we all know how that ended.

John Mac Ghlionn is a researcher and essayist. His writing has been published by the New York Post, the South China Morning Post, the Sydney Morning Herald, and The American Conservative.


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