U.S. TikTok Hysteria Teeters Toward The Idiotic

from the do-as-we-say,-not-as-we-do dept

Last Friday, the internet exploded with the news that Amazon was banning its employees from installing TikTok, the hugely popular social media app by Chinese company ByteDance. An entire day’s news cycle was dedicated to Amazon’s decision, with an ocean of press reports implying that the Chinese social networking platform was a privacy nightmare directly tethered to the Chinese government. The story came on the heels of months of allegations by the Trump administration that the app was doing things so vile and atrocious that the only solution was to ban the popular app from the United States entirely.

But then, at the end of the day, something odd happened. Amazon suddenly backtracked, stating that its announcement to employees urging them to uninstall TikTok was a mistake. An entire day’s news cycle, filled with allegations that TikTok was a privacy nightmare, was based on little more than an administrative brain fart.

It was just the latest example of how, upon closer inspection, much of the hysteria surrounding TikTok isn’t based on much of anything… substantive. There’s been no limit of pearl clutching from the Trump administration and its allies about the app, but when it comes to actual supporting evidence to justify an outright ban, there’s just not much of it beyond “it’s from China.” Case in point: Senator Ken Buck penned one of a flood of editorials over at Newsweek, declaring that TikTok was aggressively nefarious and a diabolical threat to US consumers:

“As evidence, TikTok’s privacy policy for U.S. residents is upfront about the vast quantity of user data it collects and shares with the CCP. “We automatically collect certain information from you when you use the Platform, including internet or other network activity information such as your IP address, geolocation-related data…, unique device identifiers, browser and search history (including content you have viewed in the Platform) and Cookies,” the policy reads.”

There are a few problems there.

One, an “up front” privacy policy is a good thing. Two, there’s no evidence that TikTok actually shares that data with the CCP yet, and while it’s certainly possible it still does and may in the future, having actual evidence of this connection is kind of important if you’re going to blacklist a company based entirely on said allegation. While it’s true you might want to avoid installing Chinese-made apps on security-sensitive devices, that’s true for a laundry list of apps, services, and hardware made all over the world that sees nowhere near the same level of hyperventilation.

Three, numerous security experts have taken a very close look at the app and found absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Four, the data Buck hyperventilates over is collected and shared by an absolute universe of companies and services thanks in large part to lax US privacy oversight and sloppy security practices. Given the endless security hacks, leaks, and data just left stupidly unsecured in the cloud, it’s not hard for Chinese intelligence — or anybody else with unlimited time and resources — to get a hold of this kind of data if it wants access to it. Banning TikTok without addressing a myriad of other issues doesn’t thwart that.

As such, if you’re genuinely concerned about US consumer privacy, banning TikTok isn’t going to do you much good. Chinese hardware is in literally everything, from your shitty router and “smart” fridge, to the millions of crappy internet of broken things devices Americans attach to their home and business networks with reckless abandon. Like the NSA, Chinese intelligence really doesn’t need TikTok to spy on Americans. There’s a million other attack vectors to choose from, most of which (like the IOT) we’re not actually doing much about, yet likely provide the Chinese government with far more data than TikTok ever could:

The reality is that most of these lawmakers making such a heated stink about TikTok couldn’t give any less of a shit about US consumer privacy, rampant data collection, or ensuring US integrity from foreign operators with malicious intent (see: Mr. Putin). In fact, most have gone well out of their way to ensure privacy regulators like the FTC lack the resources or authority to police privacy. Most have worked tirelessly to kill any and every attempt at even the most modest of privacy laws, oppose improving election security, and were utterly absent during the biggest scandals of the era (see: wireless industry’s location data fracas).

Either you care about consumer privacy or you don’t, and the majority of those making the biggest noise about TikTok have made it clear, repeatedly, that they don’t. If we actually cared about US consumer privacy, we’d pass some baseline privacy protections, craft holistic strategies to tackle the IOT dumpster fire, heavily fund election security reform, stop tearing down and defunding our privacy regulators, and actually impose more than theatrical wrist slaps against companies–foreign and domestic–that are provably incompetent or downright malicious when it comes to data privacy and security.

Many of these lawmakers had nothing to say when it was revealed that US wireless carriers were selling access to sensitive location information to every nitwit with a nickel, including stalkers and those pretending to be law enforcement. Many (like Pompeo) cry endlessly about China’s hacking efforts, but do nothing to help fund election security. Many refuse to condone our failures to secure SS7 wireless network vulnerabilities likely exploited by most foreign intelligence agencies for the better part of the last decade.

DC’s hysteria over TikTok is oddly disconnected from our broader privacy and security failures, and intellectual consistency is utterly lacking. It’s also hard to imagine that DC in its current state is capable of separating our obvious domestic financial and competitive motivations from genuine national security concerns.

Yes, the Chinese government is a brutal authoritarian mess, and its treatment of Uighurs Muslims is utterly repugnant. But the idea that you can somehow fix Chinese authoritarianism or US privacy issues just by banning an app rife with dancing teens is laughable to the extreme.

Filed Under: , , , ,
Companies: bytedance, tiktok

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “U.S. TikTok Hysteria Teeters Toward The Idiotic”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
ECA (profile) says:

Re: Don't panic

How far do you wish to go on this subject?
That 90% of the games that use the net to let players interact, TRACK YOU. its a security thing.
Every time your Cell phone App, shows you an advert, you have a very good chance it sends a Acknowledgment Back to tell them certain data from your phone.
Dont know if its changed, but Most Bots/3rd party adverts/and 3rd party Scripts, that Sites wish to show you, generally have link backs to the 3rd party.. and can/are traced.

There WAS a time they were trying to regulate this crap, as it was getting REALLLLLYYYY bad, when the internet was running fast, in the 2000-2007, they even caught a few spammers doing it for the 3rd party advertisers.
Cleaning off 200+ spam bots on a computer, that all Start wehn you turn on the computer (AND IT CHUGS HARD, and takes 5+ minutes to do anything) is so much fun.

In the end, Any computer device is NOT safe, and if you have wifi and/or Wireless, you are even less safe.
Anyone remember when Bluetooth hit the market with no encryption, and no Code needed?? Even now I can give you the 4 numbers needed to connect to Most BT devices.

To be clear.
Our Old wired phones had regulations and laws to control privacy, and as of recently, there are Very FEW for your cellphone.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Oklahoma is the real reason to ban TikTok

"I think that the Oklahoma rally is the real reason that the administration is so gung-ho about banning TikTok. "

Of course it is. The screaming orange turned up to a rally with many empty seats. It says a lot about Trump that with the equivalent of a 9/11 in dead civilians every two days, the nation on fire due to riots, and the guarantee the second wave of covid will make the first one look like a case of the sniffles…this was the first time he’s actually looked shocked and dismayed.

And when Trump’s upset the yes-men prepare to go the distance to show him they’re on the job to make him happy.

Anonymous Coward says:

dont forget though, this has made Trump extremely happy! anything he can use against the Chinese, it’s companies and the items made there but then sold world-wide so as to keep almost every country ‘up and running’, will be used! it wouldn’t be so bad ifwe could match these items for quality, cheapness and reliability but, like every country that uses them, we cant! and dont forget that what home-grown tech we have got has more backdoors in it than The Matrix and that all the USA law enforcement agencies are working their nuts off trying to get encryption banned, with even more backdoors purposefully built in, leading to every citizen being more exposed than ever, without a smidgeon of privacy left!! to me, it doesn’t matter. whoever is spying on me, they shouldn’t be!

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I love those that think China makes cheap Stuff..

But a few things to know.
HONG KONG has been given a bit of Sovereignty.. They are a business central, for MOST of the corps int he world.

When a Compnay has something made for the USA, they get to do the quality checks(the USA corp.) They are the ones that OK, the Crap stuff coming over to sell to us. NOT the China Gov..
So who is at fault.

Something of note.
Why Lock up the Wolf, after he has gotten into the chicken coup.?
Why lock down all imports at the Docks? It Cut off all the goods shipped into the nation. Who does this really hurt? NOT the China gov.(not really), but it was as if, we were Showing Off, that we could Hurt China.(we Owe them lots of money for the past wars)(funny as the last wars they raised taxes on Corps to pay for them) it hurt our corps more, but thats Solved easy…Its a business Loss. Tax deductible. Then there is the money given to corps over the last few years.. The Tax reductions.

So much of this seems like incentives to Show Corps(that ran away for the USA, mostly over pollution laws and the costs of materials< we cant compete with other nations because of the material prices), that we want them back and we CAN make it cheaper, to be in the USA.
NOT going to happen.

Ed (profile) says:

Yes, it's China

While it is disingenuous to pounce upon one app, the facts are China simply cannot be trusted. Ever. Just look at the horror show that is their "accounting software" they require EVERY foreign company that wants to do business in China to install on their systems. To have TikTok or any other Chinese software installed is an open line direct to their surveillance systems. To think otherwise is ludicrous.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Yes, it's China

To think China needs some consumer software on your devices to collect information is ludicrous. To think that China gives a shit where hundreds of millions of people are is hilarious.

To have TikTok or any other Chinese software installed is an open line direct to their surveillance systems.

I can’t stop laughing.

To think that anything in or about the US is remotely trustworthy is… your mere religious preference for a shit overlord.

Even more fun: Tik Tok doesn’t do business in China. They even had to leave HK. They have US CEO. Perhaps we should hang that person as a traitor, right?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Yes, it's China

You don’t sound like a racist conspiracy theorist at all. Frankly I trust non-USA software more by default considering the myriad of confirmed privacy abused by the USA based groups.

And I can also call bs on your "required" accounting software as I have worked with multiple companies that worked with China and none had to deal with it.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Yes, it's China

"To have TikTok or any other Chinese software installed is an open line direct to their surveillance systems. To think otherwise is ludicrous."

True enough…but in which way does this differ from anything coming out of the US? PRISM, xKeyscore, and the case for the warrant canary aren’t exactly vouchers of reliability.

I am, however, broadly leaning toward the idea that China at least has little interest in the personal politics of some gwailo in europe. The same can’t be said for US and EU "law enforcement".

Until we in the west can kick government mass surveillance out of the citizenry’s private business we might paradoxically be better off – or at least less bad – using a xiaomi or huawei than we are using an iPhone.

That said there are degrees of suffering. Any software requesting access to hardware and software it really has no business using is potentially out-and-out malware and should be avoided.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

"We wouldn’t willfully allow foreign aggressors to invade our country on foot, so why are we allowing the CCP to do so through our smartphones?"

Once again the government is showing it doesn’t like competition- they want to be the only one spying on you through your electronics.

crade (profile) says:

"there’s no evidence that TikTok actually shares that data with the CCP yet"
The thing is the way China is set up the CCP can get access to that data if they decide they want it at any point and without notifying anyone about it. Whether we can prove they are currently using it or not doesn’t really make a lot of difference as that could change any time anyway and just depends on the whims of the CCP.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I don’t really think it’s much different for the U.S. hypothetically the government here needs to answer to it’s citizens so it might face some blowback and hypothetically the constitution might give companies the ability to deny the government requests for data or at least allow the companies to notify people that the government made such demands, but how much protection it affords is debatable.

However, China’s legal system basically says chinese companies are currently legally obligated to to give their intelligence agency any data it asks for. I don’t see how you can take any comfort whatsoever in a lack of evidence that they are currently accessing data from tiktok. The ccp have access to the data from tiktok if they want it, evidence or no.

Celyxise (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

My point here is that you are still willing to give the USA the benefit of a doubt despite actual proven abuse (AT&T, Verizon, Facebook, Cisco) but aren’t willing to extend that same benefit to China because of hypothetical abuse.

The only reason you give to distrust this app is because it is Chinese, and that is some racist logic there. We can and should distrust every company that has our private data, but we should do so from a level foundation, not one tilted by racial prejudice.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Nice but
this is about the rules that companies operate under not who runs them.

The difference is that with companies based in china it’s not hypothetical abuse, it’s hypothetically using their system exactly how it is designed and exactly how they state that it works.

You have no right to be upset if your tiktok data is used by the ccp. It’s not abuse on their part, it is absolutely clear in their law that that is what you are signing up for.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Well I’m not sure thats being honest either, despite being imperfect there are some legal remedies for many types of abuse by companies in the U.S. and the govt has to behave at least well enough to keep up appearances for the elections. The U.S. govt requests specific data and may play fast and loose with the rules but they don’t do stuff like make direct long term links to swaths of corporate databases for "dissent" scores with impunity. It would not be correct to say there are no controls in China either, the bigger companies have some economic leverage, but they are not in the same practical situation that the U.S. is in by a long shot.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

"…despite being imperfect there are some legal remedies for many types of abuse by companies in the U.S."

Effectively not. And if the government is the one asking all you can hope for is that the platform you use has a working warrant canary. The only difference between the US and China when it comes to surveillance is that China is far more above board with it – and of course, primarily interested in what chinese citizens are doing.

I’d actually trust chinese software over US software, simply because as I’m not a chinese citizen, a chinese expat nor live in China I’m simply not of interest to the PRC.

I can’t say the same about european or especially US intelligence where my political leanings alone make me, judging by the US president, a borderline terrorist sympathizer. It’s not safe to believe in principles of human rights in the "free" west anymore.

"…and the govt has to behave at least well enough to keep up appearances for the elections."


…did you somehow just wake up out of a twelve-year coma? Ever since 9/11 there has been no depth to which the government of the US couldn’t sink with nary a single fear about the next election, because at that next election, as per usual, exactly zero shits would be given.

Arguably Trump was the least monstrous choice offered among the GOP candidates in the last election. This election people will have to choose between him and Biden – someone who has never, in his whole career, had a policy which wasn’t dictated by the highest bidder or the party leadership.

For all that many americans love to argue that they are the nation of choices and opportunities they are remarkably quiet about the fact that what they can "choose" from often seems to just be all the different flavors of raw shit…and nothing else.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

I’m an outsider looking in and believe me I know the U.S. two party system is fundamentally flawed, but people still feel that they can openly dissent to the government on social media in the U.S. without censoring what they say over concerns of being sent to a rehabilitation camp. You aren’t there yet.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Re:

"…people still feel that they can openly dissent to the government on social media in the U.S. without censoring what they say…"

And then, as we see, the US government decides to make the platform used a public enemy. If you had made that statement a dozen or so years ago then I’d agree with you – because even under GWB there were limits.

But the current political climate is pointing towards even worse precedence. Hoover and McCarthy weren’t that long ago.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"hypothetically the government here needs to answer to it’s citizens so it might face some blowback"

Which is why PRISM and xKeyscore exist, I guess. The sad fact is we already know for a fact US intelligence has made it a habit of going to platform owners and hardware owners with government-enforced NDA’s in hand to the point where reputable companies had to create the concept of the warrant canary.

"China’s legal system basically says chinese companies are currently legally obligated to to give their intelligence agency any data it asks for."

In effect no different than the US today. One of the major issues when it comes to the US vs China is that today the US has no moral ground to stand on which is why the antagonism is exclusively focused on highlighting the business sector hostility.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The same can be said about Facebook, Twitter etc. and the US government.

Also worth noting TikTok servers are not in China, nor is the service available inside Chins, Douyin is what is used there. China has kept its internal social media separate from the rest of the world.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
John85851 (profile) says:

The world needed a scapegoat...

… and they chose TikTok (and Heiwai).

TikTok is suddenly out of favor because it’s made by (say it slowly) "Chiiiina", which is probably a supporter of "Anteeeeeefa". You know, those evil foreigners out to steal our data… and then do something with it!
I’d say that’s sarcasm, but it seems like that’s how too many politicians think: it’s fashionable to slam foreign companies, so they’ll jump on the bandwagon.
But they never finish their accusation: what exactly will TikTok or the Chinese government do with all this data? Will they sell it back to US companies? Or are politicians scared of the nebulous "collecting data"?

Annonymouse says:

Wait a sec
Did I read an article here or was it on The Register where someone decompiled TikToc and sussed out what it was doing and how?

It read everything (and I mean literally everything) and sent it all back in encrypted form as well as giving itself control over various functions like gps and some such.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"It read everything (and I mean literally everything) and sent it all back in encrypted form as well as giving itself control over various functions like gps and some such."

The problem is…that’s more or less how EVERY social media client app works.

The only difference is to which extent foreign entities A, B and C have access to the social media servers in question. Which for TikTok means the US is in the position to know everything whereas China still faces the issue that TikTok’s servers aren’t in China.

China has a separate set of social media apps used inside China, for its own citizenry, completely integrated with chinese intelligence. THOSE are what they use to spy on their people.

Under normal circumstances if you install and use any social media client app, including TikTok, Facebook or Twitter, the primary risk you run is that a certain nigerian prince and his peers may choose to send you unsolicited messages where they offer to share their fortunes with you as long as you give them your bank account number…

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...