Americans are pushing back against invasive social media apps that can track our movements, friends, interests, and, seemingly, even our thoughts — but only when the app developers are Chinese. That’s the absurdity of the new backlash against TikTok, as companies and government agencies set their sights on the immensely popular social media platform while doing little about the nearly identical privacy dangers posed by its American counterparts.
Earlier this year, the Department of Defense, Transportation Security Administration, and other federal agencies banned TikTok on hundreds of thousands of employees’ devices. More recently, corporate America joined suit. Amazon briefly ordered its nearly 800,000 employees to delete the TikTok app from their phones, citing unspecified security risks, before reversing course. Shortly after, Wells Fargo told employees to remove it from company devices. Flash forward to this month, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo floated the idea of a national ban on the app to protect “national security.” Members of Congress are reviewing legislation to further restrict TikTok.
TikTok is an incredibly addictive video platform that has quickly come to be one of the world’s most popular social media apps, with over 2 billion downloads. Users typically upload short video clips, remixing music, dance routines, and countless Internet memes. The end result is an algorithmically driven rabbit hole of user content, designed with a single goal: to keep your attention. In other words, it does the exact same thing that Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and many other digital platforms do.
Nativist business protections are hardly novel. America’s antipathy to Asian investment dates back to the 1970s. US politicians, fearful of seeing US global power shrink in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, moved to block foreign purchases of key US companies, particularly purchases from Asian countries. In the 1980s, the economic takeover “threat” was seen as coming from Japan. But the attention on TikTok today stands out not just because of the popularity of the app, but because of the unprecedented restrictions being contemplated.
Last November, a bipartisan group of lawmakers urged federal investigation of TikTok’s acquisition of a US company, a deal that eased TikTok’s entry into the American market. Unlikely bedfellows like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator Marco Rubio separately warned that the Chinese government might censor political content and pose a national security threat. Shortly after, Pentagon officials purged the app from Department of Defense systems and urged military personnel to do the same.
None of this is to claim TikTok has a pristine privacy record. Like all surveillance capitalism platforms it has a sordid history of abuse. It also faces litigation for allegedly sending Americans’ data to China. But this hardly differentiates it from the likes of Facebook, which has created one privacy disaster after another. And Google paid $170 million for violating the exact same child privacy law as TikTok.
Many critics, including the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, point to the relationship between TikTok and the Chinese government. Of course, there is no Fourth Amendment to protect against warrantless searches by Chinese officials, no Bill of Rights guaranteeing privacy. But when you consider the sheer scale of American social media surveillance, this too looks like a distinction without a difference.
Social media has become one of the leading sources of mass surveillance for law enforcement. Not only are many systems used without a warrant, and even combined with invasive tools like facial recognition, but the volume of warrants is staggering. For Google alone, American police made more than 53,000 requests in 2019 alone. And that’s just one company. Even worse, new tools, like geofence warrants, allow police to access thousands of accounts with just a single order. Alarmingly, still more private surveillance systems are emerging, like Clearview AI, which provides police with information on millions of Americans without any consent or warrant.
This domestic picture could get a lot bleaker. Attorney General William Barr is trying to undermine strong encryption that can protect user privacy. Legislation pending before Congress would make existing cyber security practices a crime, forcing firms to build in a cryptographic backdoor for government access. In other words, they would have to replicate much of China’s surveillance state. The irony is that many of those in the Trump Administration who are most opposed to TikTok are the same people pushing these invasive new American powers.
If Americans wake up to the threat of mass social media surveillance, it would be a welcome and long-overdue change. But if we want to tackle the problem, we need to start at home. Racialized fear-mongering about TikTok from those who undermine Americans’ privacy at home isn’t a cyber security agenda. It’s privacy nativism, and we should dismiss it as such.
Albert Fox Cahn is the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center, a New York-based civil rights and privacy group, and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at NYU School of Law. Naz Akyol is a rising third-year student at NYU School of Law and a civil rights extern at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.