Tiktok and the Evolution of Data Privacy

Photo credit to Julian Herzog.

Imagine a small, orange bird. It has reddish-brown wings and a wide, golden tail. Native to the forests of Brazil, its name is the cryptic treehunter. It seems to stand proud and contemplative in its rare photographs.

Unfortunately, excessive deforestation within Brazil has steadily destroyed much of its natural habitat. As of August 2019, the cryptic treehunter has been categorized as extinct.

So-called user data privacy, in today’s internet, is this bird. The destruction of data privacy’s natural habitat — the anonymous browsing of the Internet’s early days – stems directly from a deal struck between corporations and consumers, much like the literal pollution discussed above. Tiktok, meanwhile, is just one factory pumping its modest contribution to the 2.57 million pounds of CO2 released into the atmosphere every second.

Genuine data privacy on the Internet is a relic of the past, long ago replaced by today’s reality. The Internet today is covered by countless web trackers that monitor our location, browsing history, browsing patterns and financial transactions; they follow each user’s every move.

We consumers have willingly accepted the creepiness of huge corporations knowing our desires, locations, MBTI personalities, and political leanings as a trade-off for incredible convenience. Google Maps directs us to our most likely destinations with minimal prompting, Amazon serves up products directly tailored to our interests, and Facebook (and its contemporaries) feed us the exact content we want to see. Of course, we want and even crave such convenience. We have made the same deal with corporations since the Industrial Revolution, when we chose convenient material gains in the form of cheap and high-quality manufactured goods and accepting the environmental degradation that came with it.

The result of today’s convenience trade-off is an Internet where user data is easily collected and shared, in order for firms to create an ever more accurate picture of who we are and what we’re likely to buy. This data migrates not only between companies and across platforms, but also through international borders.

Genuine data privacy on the Internet is a relic of the past, long ago replaced by today’s reality

The border between the US and China, in fact, is a major data sharing channel. Chinese advertisers are eager to tap the comparably wealthy US consumer market, and dozens of advertising firms have partnered with all the major US social media platforms, including Facebook and its subsidiaries, Google’s YouTube and Gmail, Snapchat by Snap Inc. and Twitter. These ad tech firms do not lurk surreptitiously in the corners of the Internet. Their connections to Western social media companies are well documented. In the case of Facebook, they are listed directly on its business advertising site. As for Microsoft, who had been a strong contender to buy TikTok in most of August and early September, they themselves are partnered with a marketing agency based in Shanghai that helps leading Chinese companies reach the US market.

Thus, to claim that TikTok users’ data is especially compromised because the Chinese government can access it through ByteDance is irrelevant, even if true. This data channel between Chinese and US firms already exists, and US media companies all have user data that is currently stored and used by Chinese ad tech firms. If we endorse the White House’s sentiment and assume that every Chinese firm has direct links to the Chinese Communist Party, then protecting user data from China by transferring TikTok to a US-owned company achieves little.

That is not to say that it makes no difference whether TikTok is owned by ByteDance or an American company.  Politically, there are clear and far-reaching ramifications to such an exchange. There has been (so far unproven) speculation that, through ByteDance, the Chinese government can do much more than simply access users’ data. If they could somehow gain the ability to impose influential censorship, install malware, or even steal biometric data stored in users’ phones, ByteDance and its apps would pose a serious and sizable security risk to American users. This risk should reasonably decrease if TikTok is sold to an American company.

Such a transfer – or a ban, if no deal goes through – also sets a weighty precedent for foreign digital relations. The similarities between Mike Pence’s declaration of a “clean internet” and the Russian and Chinese splinternet models are not lost on US citizens and global observers. More nations may now jump on the bandwagon and tout separate internets divided along national borders.

If the goal of this transfer is to protect the data of US citizens from the Chinese government, however, the battle is already lost, given that US-owned companies each have their own complex connections with Chinese ad tech firms. One might as well try to bring back the cryptic treehunter today by lobbying to close a few local factories – it is too little, too late.

 By the time of writing, Bytedance has negotiated a deal with Oracle to take over the American operations of TikTok, with Bytedance remaining as the majority owner of the company. Despite announcing on Sep. 18th that he will be banning downloads of TikTok, Trump has given his blessing to the deal a day after, as of Sep. 19th. 


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