Do You Want China to Have Your Child's Data?


Show Notes

TikTok was one of the most downloaded apps of 2021 and nearly one-third of Americans, most very young, use this app at least once a month. The feel of TikTok is lighthearted and silly, with teens posting brief clips of themselves dancing.

Yet from its earliest days, TikTok’s silly, lighthearted feel seemed to be fronting for something darker.

ByteDance, the parent company, is Chinese-owned. This means the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has access to the data collected by TikTok, as Chinese law states that all the government need do is ask for it. Peter Schweizer and Eric Eggers, investigative journalists and parents, take a swipe at TikTok on the most recent episode of The Drill Down.

In Buzzfeed, journalist Emily Baker-White recently reported that, according to leaked audio from more than 80 internal TikTok meetings, China-based employees of ByteDance have repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about US TikTok users. This, they added, is precisely the type of behavior that led former president Donald Trump to threaten to ban the app in the United States. The article notes that TikTok’s US subsidiary denied sharing user data with the Chinese government and said it would not do so if asked.

What if they were never asked? That’s what an American audit by specialists from Booz Allen Hamilton suggests, as Peter discusses on the show. The audit found all sorts of strange functions in the application and storage layer code that appear to be backdoors for someone to use.

TikTok announced what it called “Project Texas,” in which the company would be changing “the default storage of US user data” and assuring that “100% of US user traffic is being routed to [Texas-based] Oracle Cloud Infrastructure.” Yet, the risk will always remain that the government could force ByteDance to collect and turn over information as a form of “data espionage.”

Worse still, as Peter and Eric note, the CCP could exert more influence over the platform and its powerful “For You” algorithm, which recommends videos to its more than 1 billion users,” as Baker-White puts it.  Not only that, the cybersecurity firm Panda Security reported this month that TikTok has quietly updated its privacy policy to collect biometric identifiers and biometric information, known in the US as faceprints and voiceprints.

Panda Security also said that privacy violations are not unusual for TikTok. ByteDance agreed to pay $92 million earlier this year, settling a class-action lawsuit for failing to adhere to the Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act. TikTok took responsibility for sharing harvested personal information with third parties located worldwide, including China.

The first rule of poisoning someone is not to spill it on yourself. And China does not allow TikTok behind “the Great Firewall” – the system by which China censors internet content for internal consumption. Chinese users get a derivative product from the same company called “Douyin” that places educational and propaganda messages between the videos. It also pauses for several seconds between videos, limits users to 45 minutes a day, and shuts off between 10:00pm and 6:00am every school day. Peter says that, despite his own libertarian leanings and instinct to reject government censorship of private enterprise, the ChiComs might be onto something here.

Sen. Ted Cruz has called TikTok “a Trojan Horse the CCP can use to influence what Americans can see, hear, and ultimately think.” National Review quotes journalist Matt Yglesias saying that this level of cultural power was equivalent to “if the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union had decided to plow some of its oil export profits into buying up broadcast television stations across the US.” A bill in California has advanced that would allow its state government to sue companies like ByteDance, SnapChat, or Meta Platforms (Facebook) for features that allegedly harm children.

Members of the US military are banned from using the app on government-issued devices, but it hasn’t stopped troops from downloading it on their personal devices.

Should the US government regulate TikTok, or ban it outright as Trump sought to do, or as the government of India did? As the New York Times noted in its report on the Buzzfeed disclosures, Trump issued an executive order forcing ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent, to divest the company. TikTok’s owners struck a deal to sell to Oracle and Walmart. But when President Joe Biden took office, he did not enforce that divestment order – and ByteDance didn’t sell.

Regulating, or forcing ByteDance to divest TikTok would gore some oxen here. Peter notes that giant venture capital firms such as KKR and Sequoia Partners have massive investments in ByteDance, and would bring heavy lobbying pressure against such a move.

Nevertheless, on Wednesday morning FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr called on Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores, calling it a national security risk. “TikTok is not what it appears to be on the surface,” Carr wrote. “It’s not just an app for sharing funny videos or memes. That’s the sheep’s clothing. At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data.”