The Idea That Banning TikTok Thwarts Chinese Intelligence In Any Way Is Ridiculous

from the sitting-at-the-kid's-table dept

As we’ve noted a few times, not much about the Trump administration’s ban of TikTok makes coherent sense. Most of the biggest TikTok pearl clutchers in the GOP and Trump administration have actively opposed things like basic US privacy laws or even improving election security, and were utterly absent from efforts to shore up other privacy and problems, be it the abuse of cellular location data or our poorly secured telecom infrastructure. It’s a bunch of xenophobia, pearl clutching, and performative politics dressed up as serious adult policy that doesn’t even get close to fixing any actual problems.

And yet, many reporters and internet experts keep parroting the idea that banning TikTok somehow “protects U.S. consumers” or “prevents the Chinese government from obtaining U.S. consumer data.” You’re to ignore that Americans install millions of Chinese-made “smart” TVs, fridges, and poorly secured IOT gadgets on home and business networks with reckless abandon. Or that international corporations not only sell access to consumer data to any nitwit with a nickel, they often leave it unencrypted in the cloud. Or that the U.S. has no privacy law for the internet era, and corporations routinely see performative wrist slaps for privacy and security incompetence.

The idea that Chinese intelligence, with zero scruples and an unlimited budget, “needs” TikTok access to spy on Americans’ data in this environment is just silly nonsense. Any yet, here we are.

It’s all even more absurd when you consider the scope and complexity of global adtech markets. As Gizmodo’s Shoshana Wodinsky recently explored, international adtech is a complex, unaccountable monster. This orgy of consumer tracking, behavioral data, and “anonymized” (read: not actually anonymous at all) datasets is so complex, even folks that cover the sector have a hard time understanding it. Thinking we can control what data the Chinese government is gleaning from this tangled web — or that even selling TikTok to Microsoft somehow “fixes” anything — is an act of hubris in full context:

“Over time, what’s become very, very clear is that while, say, Google and Facebook and TikTok are ultimately at the whims of local regulators, the same can’t be said about the digital Rube Goldberg machine of platforms, subsidiaries and shady third-parties these companies use to churn our data into massive profits. Our current digital economy, to a certain degree, depends on global ties that are built to run far deeper than any ban or buyout could ever hope to touch.

Or, to put it more bluntly: If Trump’s real concern is keeping the data of our squeaky clean American phones out of the clutches of that dirty, no-good communist adversary China, then Microsoft buying TikTok won’t do shit—our data is making its way from U.S. companies to servers in China constantly, regardless of who owns TikTok.”

Thinking a ban of one Chinese teen dancing app addresses any of this is just absurd. Similarly, the idea that our defunded, understaffed, and kneecapped privacy regulators at the FTC can actively track or manage any of this (without serious reform, more staff, and a bigger budget) is equally silly:

As Wodinsky notes, if this market is so large that journalists, experts, and privacy and security regulators can’t ferret out where your data winds up and who is actively cashing in on access to it, the idea that banning or selling TikTok is some mystical foil for one of the most powerful intelligence-gathering governments on the planet is a bizarre pipe dream:

“The wonderful world of digital advertising is built on black boxes inside of black boxes inside of black boxes. This means that there’s a good chunk of people who work at these companies who likely can’t tell you exactly where your name, your phone number, your precise location, or other personal data might actually end up.”

And yet if you read numerous press reports and analyst insights into the TikTok fracas, they’ll fail utterly to include any of this as essential context, which in turn lets the Trump administration pretend that this political tap dance is actually helpful internet policy.

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Companies: tiktok

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Comments on “The Idea That Banning TikTok Thwarts Chinese Intelligence In Any Way Is Ridiculous”

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30 Comments
Lisa Westveld (profile) says:

But TikTak IS violating the rules!

See also https://www.forbes.com/sites/zakdoffman/2020/08/12/tiktok-google-android-breaking-rules-secretly-track-android-users/
While TikTok might not seem to be really harmful as it just collects small videos of users, there is something that violates the rules that Google has set! An TikTok is violating this rule to collect more data than they’re allowed to and without notifying the end user.
TikTok collects the MAC address from each device and sends this home. This allows TikTik but also many other apps to basically identify each user through this unique code. TikTok has also been secretly collecting clipboard data in Apple devices.
TikTok is accused of tracking users. Collecting MAC addresses is just that. So a ban on TikTok might be a good idea, until TikTok starts to behave. But as they removed the offensive code from the latest code, they should be complying right now.

Lisa Westveld (profile) says:

Re: Re: But TikTak IS violating the rules!

Google is claiming TikTok broke the rules and told them to quit with that. It shows that TikTok is collecting more data than they mention to their users. That’s suspicious.
TikTok is not the only one who tries to break the rules. Any company that does so should be punished. It must be made clear that they cannot bypass any rules for their own gain.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: But TikTak IS violating the rules!

So, how should Google punish TikTok for violating Google rules?

It shows that TikTok is collecting more data than they mention to their users.

You realize most privacy statements are 1) non-specific in the extreme as to what data is actually collected, and with whom the data is shared, and 2) read by (statistically) no one?

Yes, companies should do better, most of this data should never be generated or collected by any organization. Why is TikTok seen as an outlier here for collecting a … MAC address?

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: But TikTak IS violating the rules!

"It shows that TikTok is collecting more data than they mention to their users. That’s suspicious."

Unfortunately, no. I mean, it’s standard modus operandi for any corporation to use their free apps for data mining purposes. The old adage "If you aren’t paying, YOU are the product" still applies.

Google, for all its warts and blisters, still has a set of principles they occasionally abide by, but it’s getting rarer on the ground, no doubt.

Also, and I hate to point this out, but if your device connects to a server and communicates ANY data meant to identify the user at all you can be sure the MAC address and other openly available identifiers are among that data, whether you’re using TikTok or anything else.

It all boils down to whether you trust the company which owns the servers you contact.

"TikTok is not the only one who tries to break the rules. Any company that does so should be punished. It must be made clear that they cannot bypass any rules for their own gain."

Well, the GDPR is an unholy mess but it does contain a few grains of common sense here and there. Sensible third-party audit rules should apply to any informational transaction between user and corporation, preferably in a way which isn’t circumvented by clicking "accept" on a three-page EULA.

That TikTok does what almost all other companies do is not, however, an indication that a social platform is of much use in national intelligence work, which is what the OP brings up.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: But TikTak IS violating the rules!

And I will bet this is for the China servers…more then any other.
As mentioned many times over the ages…
The amounts of data on the net, or even in 1 App..Is so huge. that trying to view/read/do much of anything with it, takes TIME.
By the time you decide you need to arrest someone..its to late.

And Why the FBI loves pre-emptive strikes on those it can Convert, to PUSH A BUTTON to fake bombs.

There are REALLY no Real internet laws, to regulate Much of anything. Because Every nation can only Inforce Their own. And my suggestion that the Internet be a Viable Independent nation.

Many privacy laws in the USA are Forgotten, Killed off, gotten rid of, not enforced. We had some, and the cortps Just run over them. And if they are enforced, as mentioned, its a slap on the wrist, maybe .1% of anything the corp is making in money.
Even the suggestion that the Current Internet breakin’s of Many locations is Corps trying to get ALL our Personal data.(not just Crooks looking for Passport data or credit card scammers)

In the last 20 years they have added abit more ID centered protections, but thats Nothing. And then facial ID is a baked up idea thats failing. So they want something else.
But in the end, IN THE USA/EU, who is hurt most by most of this(other Then China security, in China) is the corporations and banks.(and part of the reasoning the corps arent regulated)

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

TikTok is accused of tracking users. Collecting MAC addresses is just that.

So it would be all better if, say, an American business were collecting MAC addresses, and selling them to whomever.*

https://miovision.com/blog/travel-time-origin-destination/

*But not, no NEVER not to anyone who admitted to being connected with Chinese/Iranian/Venezuelan intelligence. Because that would be wrong.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Assume truth, get confusion. Assume corruption, get clarity

I mean, it does, you just have to completely ignore their stated reasons for doing things as in almost every instance that is not going to be the real reason.

If you assume that they’re telling the truth then no, their actions are random, counter-productive and incoherent more often than not, but assume they’re lying and look at what they stand to gain from something and suddenly things start making a lot more sense.

Anonymous Coward says:

Wrong idea everyone

If the US believes that banning TikTok will thwart Chinese intelligence that must mean that the US is using the exact same technique with other apps to gather intelligence on others. The exact same reason why they are blocking Chinese made cell network parts, we are using our access to parts to input spy tech into them so if we can’t, it must already have its own spy tech in it.

Stand back and think about what they are doing and saying and you realize that even though it sounds crazy, there is a reason for it.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Wrong idea everyone

While it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the USG was engaging in such actions I wouldn’t read too much into it along those lines as in this case the justifications given are pretty obviously nothing but a smokescreen to avoid owning the real reason, that being to punish a company/platform that helped a bunch of teens make Trump look even more like a chump than normal via his faceplant of a corona swap meet/rally at Tulsa, along with stocking the fear/hate of The Other.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Wrong idea everyone

Love it.
USA compains for years that China is stealing CR and Intellectual property. But there are NO international laws against this..(not really)
Even thos OUR corps are sending China the Blue prints to Make what we want..
RECENTLY China has been BUYING UP, a large amount of ???
CR and intellectual properties…
Why is the USA and the corps upset??
China may OUT capitalist the USA Capitalists..

That One Guy (profile) says:

Gotta love a scapegoat to distract idiots

Going after the actual problems would require some real work on the legislators part, and more problematically involve stepping on some rich toes by putting in place the dreaded Regulations that might cut into corporate profits and by extension corporate ‘donations’.

No, much better to find some outside target to go after, allowing them to give gullible people a scapegoat to blame and them a chance to look like they’re Doing Something without having to actually Do Something.

David says:

Sense?

As we’ve noted a few times, not much about the Trump administration’s ban of TikTok makes coherent sense.

It’s not supposed to make sense. It’s supposed to make money. And headlines. But considering how non-great the headlines are, the main thing is money.

But additionally, part of the point is like that of nominating "conservative" judges: making sure to prime the U.S. for a future that sanity cannot turn around on a dime. If the U.S. gets reputed as a pack of undependable reck- and lawless crooks and thieves internationally, it makes it quite harder to make headway when you aren’t.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Gradualism

"I bet folks on Hong Kong wish they had nothing to do with China back in 99. Not getting started in the first place is a very smart policy."

First your analysis of the reich based on what the nazi propaganda ministry wrote on their public bullet list and now this? Koby, you need to start actually reading factual history.

Hong Kong was leased to the british as "reparations" back in the 18th century. Basically China objected to british drug smugglers running opium into China and the UK responded by sailing a gunboat up the yang tze and aiming a broadside’s worth of cannons at the imperial palace. That lease was to last for a predetermined amount of time. Thus Hong Kong evolved as part of the british commonwealth.

Once China recovered from their revolution they started leaning on the UK, telling them the terms of the lease needed revision. The UK agreed and the result was the sino-british Joint Declaration, where Hong Kong was returned to China earlier and China agreed to, on paper, allow HK to retain its own political system for another 50 years.

Important to note that absolutely no one with any political acumen believed in any stipulation on that treaty other than that HK was to return to being Chinese.

The folks in Hong Kong? Were never asked. They were simply told the UK would take it’s sheltering hand away and HK had to choose between peaceful assimilation or acquisition by force. They chose the peaceful route and when the Chinese took over, any smart HK resident who didn’t want to be Chinese upped and left.

"Not getting started" would mean either leaving or trying to resist China with force of arms. An actual choice was never in the cards.

Anonymous Coward says:

hands up those who have seen that India is following the ban on TikTok and France is in hot pursuit of doing the same! again, hands up those whop have noticed that the countries that are going down the USA route, just like the USA are big on spying on their own citizens? the reason for doing this is because of the way the governments behave, ie, are as untrustworthy as you can get, want to know everything that their own citizens are doing but want to ensure that, if they cant stop the citizens finding out what the politicians and their frineds are up to, they can jump on those citizens from a great height! can anyone see the similarities to what the Chinese are doing in HK, coz i sure as hell can! none of these governments are prepared to do what they are supposed to do, ie, protect the people. first and foremost their aim is to make sure the corrupt governments and politicians are protected whilst going about their pot-filling businesses and only worrying about doing something for the citizens when voting time comes round again!

Anonymous Coward says:

Karl, this is an article that borders on whataboutism, but in a good and measured way.

TikTok is clearly doing things it shouldn’t be doing, and is in a relationship with the CCP that by default weakens the US security posture.

But as you pointed out, TikTok is not alone here; EVERY social media platform is doing things it shouldn’t be doing, and there’s a huge laundry list of companies with close ties to the CCP, because that’s how the CCP operates.

Ignoring all this is silly. That said, ignoring a popular and growing social media app that encourages people to essentially provide all their real-time personal data indirectly to the CCP is also not that wise.

And having said all that — American companies have been doing the same things around the world for years, even where it breaks local privacy legislation.

It’s not like this administration is going to do anything about any of it, and it’s obvious that the whole TikTok thing is really about social media dominance and the ability to score political points… but maybe we should be using TikTok as a tool for improved discourse on the other security failings instead of the other failings as a reason for dismissing their silly stance on TikTok?

John85851 (profile) says:

The real reason

Isn’t the real reason the Trump administration wants to ban TikTok is because Trump got it into his head that TikyTok users somehow organized to register thousands of people for his Tulsa, OK rally, but then didn’t show up?
The low attendance wasn’t caused by the virus pandemic or people losing interest in his rally- it’s because TikTok users followed the instructions of one person… and that person wasn’t Trump.

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