When the pandemic was declared last year, and lockdown measures were put in place, stress and anxiety levels were not the only things to spike. By April 2020, TikTok generated a staggering 2 billion downloads across the globe, just 5 months after having surpassed 1.5 billion downloads, making it the most downloaded app in the first quarter of 2020, or in any quarter until then.
As the increasingly popular app drew in teens by the millions, with its flurry of bite-sized videos showcasing lockdown-inspired creativity, its ties with China made alarm bells ring in Western ears, especially since international organisations and world leaders also launched their own TikTok accounts as a means for effective engagement with future voters and decision-makers.
In June 2020, India banned TikTok, citing cybersecurity concerns. The ban, however, coincided with the Himalayan border dispute in which 20 Indian soldiers perished. One cannot help but wonder whether this retaliation stems from genuine national security concerns over the possibility that TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, may be forced to share data with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), or whether it is a symptom of India’s geopolitical tensions with China.
However, experts have insisted that the security charges put forward by the international community vis-à-vis TikTok can be dismissed. First, TikTok’s hunger for user data is by no means superior to that of other social media apps. This offers no consolation, since the amount of user data gathered is still shocking. Among the data gathered is the phone model and operating system used, and which videos are watched and commented on by users. However, these user-data collection practices are not exclusive to TikTok, seeing as Facebook itself seems to have lost track of all the ways it surveils its users. Therefore, if we were to follow this argument, the charge of rapacity for user data aimed at generating revenue does not hold up. So, why deny millions of teenagers the fun outlet TikTok provides?
One persisting argument is that China is harvesting personal information on rival populations, including online viewing habits, location, and keystroke patterns, creating extensive digital profiles. But while the West is busy debating whether or not TikTok poses a security threat, China’s patriotic hackers, who offer their services to the CCP for far more sinister acts, such as intellectual property theft, are probably snickering away at their keyboards; the CCP does not need TikTok to have this kind of access to personal information, as the 2015 United States Office of Personnel Management data breach clearly showed. Compromised data included fingerprints, detailed health records and financial information of employees and their families.
Another recurrent charge against TikTok is that the app is infused with malware and spyware. Again, it is unproven that TikTok does things differently when compared to US-owned Facebook, in that it is no more invasive as far as private data is concerned. To further dismantle the malware claim, experts have recently observed that the app has not carried out 'any overtly malicious activity'. So, what is really behind this eruption against TikTok?
The great data battle
In the digital era, data is a key factor in the conflict between global powerhouses, and it is also shaping states’ domestic and foreign policies. As China continues – steadfast as ever – in its determination to handle data like it would sovereign assets, its status as a surveillance state is being bolstered by novel technologies. Up until a couple of years ago, thousands of Chinese surveillance cameras were still being used in the US government system, and a report had identified potential security threats posed by Chinese-made smart light bulbs which, among other things, enable real-time location sharing.
China’s policy choice revolves around a regime of 'local [data] storage and outbound assessment', which in turn points towards its resoluteness at reaching its strategic goals of power in cyberspace and self-dependent technological innovation. At the core of China’s approach is, of course, internet sovereignty. As China continues to paddle its own canoe, the international discourse on internet governance becomes increasingly more fragmented.
Data localisation, a by-product of internet sovereignty, dramatically alters the internet’s architecture. China’s stringent policy is likely contributing towards the creation of an environment in which protectionist sentiments become reciprocal, which may explain why TikTok’s rise was met with such hostility from Western governments. Another manifestation of this protectionism can also be observed with respect to Huawei, whose ownership structure is too intertwined with the CCP for the West not to react uncomfortably to its assertion on the global scene.
When the USA took its gloves off with TikTok in mid-2020, it not only set the stage for other countries to follow suit, but it also intensified the assault on Chinese-made technology, highlighting its dubious links with the CCP, and China’s widespread use of surveillance and fervour for data collection. What transpires here is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate technology from politics, especially since technology is now a deciding factor in the contestation of power.
In the face of China’s growth, it is easier to cite concerns over national security than to expose one’s own position and highlight the geopolitics at play. China’s actions mean that its insight into rivals’ capabilities may one day become matchless. As it is, while data extracted from TikTok alone may not provide enough material to exploit, when combined with other forms of data sets that China may have already gotten its hands on, things may in future not be as light-hearted as they appear on TikTok.
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Rowena Farrugia is a linguist and translator based in Malta. She is currently a Master in Contemporary Diplomacy student attending Diplo's online course Introduction to Internet Governance. This blog post was written on a topic discussed in the course.