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  • Writer's pictureStaff @ LT&C

OPINION: Tik-Tok Is A Matter Of National Security

Any time you hear “ban” and “media” in the same sentence, it should raise your antennae or trigger your gag reflex, because any chilling effect on legitimate speech undermines a cherished American value.


But not all media is created equal, particularly when your consumption is manipulated by algorithms and the platform originates from China, which has already amassed enough data about US citizens over the last decade to power its intelligence activities for a generation.


This is neither hyperbole nor alarmist, it is fact. It is why New Jersey and nearly two dozen other states have imposed restrictions on TikTok in the last five weeks alone -- prohibiting the world’s most popular media streaming app from being used on government tech devices – and the growing drumbeat for banning it entirely should compel Americans to spike it on their own.


TikTok is owned by ByteDance, and while this Beijing tech giant is not a state-owned enterprise, no company is truly private in China. Under the national intelligence law it adopted in 2017, every business and every citizen is required to “support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work,” and that includes sharing data.

For years, US federal regulators, lawmakers and the intelligence community have expressed fear that China uses the TikTok app to influence young Americans through videos delivered through its algorithm and aims to destabilize our national security, FBI director Christopher Wray told a congressional hearing in November.


“China’s vast hacking program is the world’s largest, and they have stolen more Americans’ personal and business data than every other nation combined,” Wray said. And its government, he explained, not only could use TikTok for “influence operations,” it could also infiltrate and compromise devices while serving as a surveillance tool that stores browsing history and biometrics.


And it’s not as if we haven’t been warned about China’s appetite for subterfuge.


It was China that hacked Equifax, the credit reporting agency, to obtain the personal info of 147 million Americans, or most of our adult population. It was China that hacked the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which compromised the info of 21 million federal employees, even stealing the fingerprints of 5.6 million. China stole the personal medical records of 80 million Americans by hacking Anthem, the second largest health insurance company in the US. And China even broke into the Marriott reservation database, stealing payment information of 500 million people.


The troubling part is that the stolen data has never appeared on the so-called dark web, where criminals trade it for identity theft and other schemes. “The data has never come up for sale anywhere, and that’s unusual, because criminal organizations make money off this,” Robert Anderson, the CEO of Cyber Defense Labs, told CBS recently. “China is waiting, and they’re going to use it someday, unfortunately.”


This is not mere data mining. It is, as former national security advisor Susan Rice termed it, “state-sponsored, cyber-enabled economic espionage,” and the potential for causing damage is limited only by one’s imagination.


Early in 2021, TikTok passed YouTube as the most popular streaming app in the world. Americans under 18 spend more time on it than on every other streaming platform in the world combined.


Scott Galloway, the NYU professor and tech world rock star, asks: How comfortable would Americans be if Netflix, Hulu, Disney and HBO Max were all owned by China? Such supremacy makes TikTok the “ultimate propaganda tool,” Galloway said. “We’re naive to think that they won’t be able to do it easily, and I think it presents a real national security risk.


“If I were a member of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), and I saw that we had vested interest in diminishing America’s standing strategically in the world, and that the easiest way to do that was not with kinetic power -- because we don’t have the capital to spend on aircraft carrier fleets -- I would just take my thumb and very elegantly and insidiously put it on the scales of content that reflects America in a bad light.”


There is a bipartisan effort in Congress to ban TikTok entirely, even as the Biden Administration tries to make a deal that would effectively silo it from ByteDance. Such a mitigation agreement would be complicated, however, because the platform was built in China.


Lawmakers also argue that since China bans YouTube and Google and most US apps, there is no reason to allow it to peddle products that can be used as PSYOPs, or tools for psychological operations. As the former head of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) told Bloomberglast week, “There are good reasons to block it altogether.”


Indeed, it is no longer just the size of China’s data ambition, but how the layers of data build upon one another. TikTok consumers, take note and take action. You’re probably being monitored, and nobody does it as well as Beijing.

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