SALT LAKE CITY — Last Friday, President Donald Trump announced plans to ban TikTok, the video-sharing app popular among Gen Z Americans from the United States. He cited national security as the cause. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese corporation, and according to The New York Times, various members of the Trump administration fear that the company shares American user data with the Chinese government.
Users mourned the potential loss of the platform, which is home to silly in-joke videos, viral memes and information about social justice and human rights. “TikTok is to Black Lives Matter what Twitter was to the Arab Spring,” user Kareem Rahma told The New York Times. But on Monday, Trump announced that he would allow Microsoft — a “very American” company, in Trump’s words — to attempt to buy the app and keep it available in the United States.
While users expressed relief, another group of observers noted the apparent hypocrisy in the government’s worry over data mining when it comes from a foreign company. In one widely shared post, Joey Gallagher — a YouTube and Twitch personality — wrote, “why would i use TIKTOK when they STEAL MY DATA to send back to CHINA when I can be a GOOD AMERICAN and use FACEBOOK who steals my INFO and SELLS IT TO CHINA like a TRUE PATRIOT.” The message, stylized in sarcastically aggressive internet capitalization, garnered more than 65,000 retweets, striking a nerve with a generation used to dwindling online privacy. It also suggested a question: Why did TikTok deserve such aggressive sanctions while other companies didn’t?
Mining personal information
That tech companies mine users’ personal information, sometimes illicitly, and sell that information to advertisers is not news but rather a kind of omnipresent scandal, so tied up in the patterns of daily life that it seems impossible to limit. In 2018, The New York Times published an extensive report on the depth of apps’ tracking capabilities. It found that the data available to tech companies could determine, in many cases, exactly where a person had gone during the day and how long they had spent at each location. Over four months, one subject had her location accessed by one app or another an average of every 21 minutes.
In January of this year, the Norwegian Consumer Council released a report alleging that the dating apps Grindr, Tinder and OKCupid have compiled highly sensitive personal information from users without their knowledge. “Given the sensitivity of the information they have, dating apps in particular should take privacy and security extremely seriously,” Santa Clara University School of Law professor Eric Goldman told the Los Angeles Times.
Facebook’s privacy issues have prompted many users to step away from the platform. In 2018, it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica, an analytics firm working with the Trump campaign, had improperly obtained Facebook user data that it used in political messaging; it would eventually pay a $5 billion fine. In subsequent months and years, the company’s habit for swapping user information with other tech powerhouses became public knowledge.
“It’s an unfair game between users at one end and companies at the other,” Pierre Valade, the founder of the privacy-control app Jumbo, told the Guardian last year. “Companies write privacy policies with lawyers and they make it harder for you to figure out how to opt out, how to delete your data, but as a user you’re supposed to figure out all of that yourself.”
With the glut of personal information-tracking tech companies out there, users might wonder what about TikTok necessitates such quick action. The official response is that it poses a security risk, that user data could fall into the hands of a rival nation’s government. Earlier this year, Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Rick Scott, R-Fl., proposed a bill banning TikTok’s use among federal employees, arguing that ByteDance would be required, by Chinese law, to share user data with the government. (The company has claimed that none of its U.S. user data is subject to Chinese law.) “It can’t be controlled for security reasons by China,” Trump said of the potential sale of the app to Microsoft.
Critics of the Trump administration consider whether other motives, such as retribution or greed, might play a role. “It’s hard to say how much of the current concern is American protectionism, how much is legitimate fear of surveillance and foreign influence, and how much of it is xenophobia,” Vice’s Kevin Truong wrote last month.
A group of young TikTok influencers claimed credit for an episode earlier this summer in which a Trump rally received far fewer attendees than it planned on, saying they artificially spiked ticket sales. And Trump has moved for the government to profit from the potential sale to Microsoft. According to The New York Times’ Peter Baker, Trump said, “We think we deserve to have a big percentage of that price.”
Whatever the outcome, users are left with the familiar feeling of not knowing where their personal information goes once it leaves their smartphones, whether the apps they use are American-owned or not.
“The public doesn’t realize yet that these high-level systems administrators and developers, the people that are custodians of this data, they are being either risky or lazy or cutting corners,” Chris Vickery, a cyber-risk expert who has tracked data-mining among top tech companies, told Time last year, after Facebook data appeared on Amazon servers. “Not enough care is being put into the security side of big data.”