I am a researcher and educator in the field of cybersecurity and Internet policy. I’ve been at it for 30 years. I am also a TikTok fan.
It’s a fun, often bizarre space. Exploring it reminds me of the early days of the World Wide Web, when you never knew what you would find. I also like the way it embodies the values of free trade and entrepreneurship. At a time when policy wonks in Brussels and Washington are ramping up massive legislative and regulatory machineries on the premise that social media platforms are monopolies no one can possibly compete with, TikTok came along and proved them all wrong. To me, it’s a healthy sign that in our increasingly blockaded, tariffed and sanctioned world, a foreign information service provider can enter our market and compete successfully.
And I am not alone in my enjoyment of the app. Ninety-four million of my fellow Americans downloaded it in 2021. It’s the most downloaded app of the last two years.
On that app, you can find any kind of political view: videos that challenge China’s claim to Taiwan and messages in favor of Hong Kong democracy protesters. That would never happen if it was a tool of the Chinese Communist Party.
So, who the heck is Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr to tell us that TikTok should be banned from Apple’s and Google’s app stores?
For two years now, Carr and other populist Republicans have been sounding the alarm about the “national security threat” posed by a short video app dominated by teens and twenty-somethings. Their theory is that Chinese Communists will use TikTok to steal sensitive private information that threatens our collective security.
How can anyone take this seriously?
Carr’s letter rests on a basic misrepresentation: it equates a private business with a foreign government and twists a mundane, civilian privacy issue common to any app into a geopolitical threat.
Here’s the simple truth. ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok, is a commercial company. Like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, it makes money from advertising, which involves collecting data about users and using it to feed ad-matching algorithms. Carr cites studies documenting “suspicious” data handling practices by TikTok, but neglects to tell us that YouTube and TikTok tied in their ranking of user tracking, and that Facebook and other American-owned apps are doing or have done similar things. There may indeed be user privacy and data protection issues here, but presenting this to the public as uniquely associated with TikTok, much less as a national security issue, is bogus.
The U.S. military has already banned TikTok use by its personnel, so the idea that TikTok provides some special insight into the location of troops is another distortion.
Carr’s comments have convinced me that he does not understand what a real cyber-related national security threat looks like. As a cybersecurity educator, I offer him some examples: ransomware attacks on critical energy infrastructure; data breaches that put millions of security clearance applications stored at the federal Office of Personnel Management in the hands of foreign spies; corruption of digital certificates that control Microsoft Exchange updates; malware that enters the supply chain of network management software used by tens of thousands of organizations.
I could go on. I don’t think Carr or anyone else can explain how peeking at TikTok user data, if that’s what Beijing is doing, rises to the level of those threats. That data may be of interest to advertisers and some teens’ parents, but it’s not going to bring down the Republic.
If the Communists find out that I follow @looneytunes, @thisissavvy, @underthedesknews and the psychedelic digital creations of @hellopersonality on TikTok, I don’t see how our country is imperiled. What will they do with this information, even if they get it for millions of others? To call TikTok a governmental surveillance tool militarizes the entire global data economy — any form of trade would fit the mold.
Time to call the bluff. The attack on TikTok has nothing to do with national cybersecurity or even the data protection rights of TikTok users. It’s a manipulative foreign policy and trade policy play. Gin up fear of the Red Menace. Build more trade barriers. Republican China hawks are gunning for a new Cold War and a protectionist America. In Communist China, they have found a bogeyman that they can use to scare the public into their bordered, paranoid little world.
The irony is that our “anti-China” Republicans have essentially the same view of information policy as the Chinese Communists. They both think freedom of information is dangerous, foreign products are a threat, and nationalism mobilizes the base. Maybe that’s why they call their constituencies red states.
Mueller is a professor in Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Cybersecurity and Privacy.
Copyright © 2022, New York Daily News
Copyright © 2022, New York Daily News