Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments last week that the U.S. government is looking into banning TikTok has brought the long-running debate about the app to a fever pitch. India banned it last month, along with dozens of other apps made by Chinese developers, citing security concerns. And U.S. government officials have for months warned that TikTok — which is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company — might be collecting user data that could be transferred to Beijing, allowing the Chinese Communist Party to learn more about the young demographic that predominantly uses the app. These concerns are under review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S.
But is TikTok actually a threat to privacy? The Washington Post’s Geoffrey Fowler asks the question in a column this week. He enlists Patrick Jackson, a tech privacy company executive and expert, to analyze the app for potential privacy threats. Fowler’s takeaway:
TikTok doesn’t appear to grab any more personal information than Facebook. That’s still an appalling amount of data to mine about the lives of Americans. But there’s scant evidence that TikTok is sharing our data with China, and we should be wary of xenophobia dressed up as privacy concerns.
I don’t mean to excuse China’s record of online repression — it’s possible China will force TikTok to change its practices in the future. For now, it comes down to whether you inherently distrust data mining from Chinese-owned companies more than data mining from U.S.-owned ones. Just remember: companies in China probably make your phone, laptop and TV, too.
But this conclusion, in light of the analysis laid out in his column, sounds strange. Fowler and Jackson find that TikTok sends an “abnormal” amount of data to its company servers, and they even admit “a hole in our ability to verify all of what TikTok does.” Although data flowing from the app goes to Amazon Web Services and other cloud services, Fowler notes that they have no way of determining where the data goes afterward. He even writes that TikTok’s ability to refuse a user data request from the Chinese government is unknown.
Nevertheless, he argues that Facebook gathers more data and tracks users across multiple devices. But Jackson says: “It doesn’t appear that TikTok takes more data than Facebook but they do take measures to hide what they are collecting.”
The view that TikTok is not much worse than any invasive U.S. tech company is one shared by other tech journalists, such as the New York Times’s Taylor Lorenz. On Twitter this weekend, she endorsed journalist Brian Feldman’s explanation of the TikTok blowup. Feldman wrote: “the selective fear of TikTok is largely xenophobic, and racist,” which “is not to say you shouldn’t be skeptical of TikTok, only that you should be equally wary of its American equivalents.” After other Twitter users, including journalists and analysts who write about China, criticized Lorenz for calling that a “good explanation,” she deleted her tweet. Yesterday, she tweeted and re-tweeted Fowler’s article three times, highlighting his contention about xenophobia.
No doubt, American tech companies have been culpable of massive user data privacy breaches. Just look at Cambridge Analytica. However, the claim that there is any equivalence between those data privacy issues and the possibility that an app very likely beholden to an authoritarian country’s demands is simply incorrect. Questioning whether the Chinese Communist Party should have access to information about American teenagers is not xenophobic, and ByteDance is not the victim of a new Red Scare.
In fact, ByteDance is a particularly unsympathetic victim of this so-called xenophobia. TikTok itself, according to leaked company policy documents, censored mentions of Tibet, Tiananmen Square, and the Falun Gong religious minority on its app. ByteDance later claimed that these guidelines were outdated and have since been changed. More troublingly, the company also owns Douyin, an app closely resembling TikTok that it operates exclusively in China. Last year, a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that Douyin had been working with the Chinese authorities to spread propaganda about the treatment of the Uighurs, more than 1 million of whom are estimated to be detained in concentration camps. And according to a recent report, there is reason to believe that Douyin censors videos made by Uighur users of the app documenting Chinese government forced labor programs.
Tech journalists ask some interesting questions. Fowler asks whether TikTok poses a data privacy threat — his own reporting would suggest that nothing prevents the Chinese government from getting access to user data, except TikTok’s own guarantees. Lorenz, in a recent article, asks how banning TikTok will affect its younger users — they won’t be happy about such a move.
But here’s an important question that neither of them asks: Why should an app developed by a company complicit in whitewashing and censoring evidence of mass atrocities be allowed to operate in the United States?