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By now most Americans have heard that our Intelligence community has found security holes in the Chinese phone app, TickTok. Additionally, The US State Department has suggested that security concerns over its use could be dangerous to not just national security, but also to corporate intellectual property.
Recently, President Trump announced that he was going to ban TickTok inside the US due to the app’s collection of data on American businesses and citizens. And now Microsoft says it has offered to step in to acquire TikTok in order to prevent a complete collapse of the lucrative market TikTok has opened up.
Microsoft has a history of buying other company’s software with the intent of absorbing it into its monolithic office software offerings. Remember, Linked-In and Skype became Microsoft properties that way. Will it be able to do the same with TickTok?
But most Americans are watching a political process more than a corporate acquisition.
So, why has the Trump administration become so concerned about TikTok?
Understanding why the administration is making the right move in taking on this Chinese-owned software company, is a powerful parable of why we – and the rest of the West – find ourselves at this moment, not just in the global competition with the world’s most powerful Communist dictatorship but also in the evolution of our digital age.
TikTok is, of course, the popular new app that allows users to develop and post short videos. Its average user is part of the under-25 crowd, most of which use the app as a communications tool by socialist-leaning young activists. TikTok is to Black Lives Matter and Antifa what Twitter was to the Arab Spring.
Ordinarily, that’s not a problem in our open-speech social system. The problem is that TikTok’s parent company is the Chinese Internet technology giant ByteDance, which has shown to give the Chinese government access to American user data. India, one of TikTok’s largest markets, banned the app in June, and Britain and Germany are considering the same action citing the same security concerns.
Now President Trump threatens to do likewise. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also weighed in, citing “national security risks that are presented by software connected to the Chinese Communist Party. This is a bigger issue than just the rush that teenagers and young adults get from making silly short videos.”
The problem is not that young TikTok users are revealing confidential information affecting our military or intelligence agencies, let alone classified data. But the app can identify users who are attached to important political and social families or employment, and can track movements and communications in ways that are only now available in this digital world.
The app is gathering data, lots of it, including location data and search and browsing histories, as well as others who the videos are shared with, or websites that the videos are posted in. If you have made a TikTok video and shared it, the Communist Chinese are now tracking your connections, communications, movements, and contacts. It’s a spy organization’s dream – or nightmare depending on which side of the app you are on.
Data has become the world’s new crucial strategic commodity. Who controls access to, and is able to manipulate, large masses of data has their hand on the levers of power in the 21st century.
I still hear the comment, “I’ve got nothing to hide, so what do I care if people are spying on me?” At its root, that comment is naïve beyond comprehension. Many people still don’t understand why their privacy is important, until it’s been violated. But by then, of course, it’s too late. And even worse, people know how Google and Facebook collect their personal, private data and sell it to others. We’ve known that for years and become numb to it.
You know the story about what happens when you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water – he jumps out. Compared with what happens if you drop him in a pot of cool water and then slowly turn up the heat – he gets cooked and doesn’t realize it. That’s what happens when we let data collection march forward without any form of restrictions.
That is also the basis for the concern about who will control 5G wireless technology, which will be the mother lode of data in the coming decades. Add to that the concern about commercial and consumer drones which are nothing more than flying data collectors, since 75 % of the worldwide market is controlled by a single Chinese company, DJI.
Hence the concern about who leads the world in artificial intelligence, the technology that puts mass data collection to strategic use. An enemy who has the ability to sift through and quickly recognize patterns underlying billions of bits of seemingly unrelated data, creates a far more dangerous prospect for our national security than any Rise of the Machines scenario critics of AI usually evoke.
While TikTok and ByteDance have both denied any relationship with the Chinese government, Chinese companies are required to turn over their data and information to the government on a regular basis, as a matter of law. And although TikTok says it stores American user data in on American servers, there’s a very real question if that data also gets passed on to the Chinese government as their law requires.
By now we understand that data collection by the big tech companies didn’t make our world more secure. Instead we live with the reality of Big Data’s vulnerability, not only to cyber hacking but a tool for direct command and control over our lives—whether it’s by a despotic government or a private company.
The rebellion against the random collection and storage of data that started in Europe two years ago, is coming here. Governments, including ours, are realizing they have a responsibility to protect their citizens from having their data collected willy-nilly and sold to the nearest vendor—or passed to the nearest foreign intelligence agency.
Who has access to your data; and who has the right to gather and manipulate that data; will be the next big battle in the cyber-sphere. And that’s not just a privacy or civil liberties issue. It’s also a national security issue.
The battle over TikTok is one of the early volleys in the coming war over the great strategic resource of the coming century: your data.
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