The Case Against TikTok: the Chinese government having your data should bother you

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InQuire Media

Image courtesy of Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

This is the first of a two-part series of articles on TikTok. The second article in this series will be an ode to the app, defending its redeeming qualities but also highlighting other important issues with it and how to overcome them.

Most reading this will be aware of TikTok, whether actively or passively, you will have at some point seen its short and snappy videos aspiring to online fame, filling the same niche in the market that Vine once occupied in the days of yore. You’ll probably also be aware of the fact that it is owned by a Chinese company, and that President Trump recently set his sights on it with an executive order intending to ban the app, and remove it from app stores on mobile devices in America. The order was temporarily blocked by a judge after an appeal by TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, and its future in the USA remains uncertain. But for political reasons, we should hope that the ban is successful. I feel compelled to include this disclaimer given the topic: I am no fan of soon to be ex-president Donald Trump. It seems fitting that his executive order was likely motivated by a cynical attempt to rile up the prominent anti-China sentiment in his base, to which he is no stranger, and by a need to unleash more small arms fire in the Sino-American trade war he has relished in inciting. Despite this, his attempt to ban TikTok is a good idea from the perspective of national security and sovereignty, though he is probably only passively aware of it.

TikTok’s parent company is functionally headquartered in Beijing (its legal domicile is the Cayman Islands, a British overseas tax haven) and is therefore subject to the laws of the Chinese government. As the director of Huawei Europe’s cybersecurity office admitted last year, article 77 of the Chinese State Security Law compels companies headquartered in China to “provide assistance” with work relating to “national security”. This was reinforced with the introduction of the ‘Cybersecurity Multilevel Protection Scheme’ law, which gives the state unrestricted access to all data in the country, in Chinese servers or travelling via Chinese networks.

In short, having TikTok doesn’t necessarily mean that someone in the Chinese Communist Party office is reading your private messages, but if anyone there decides that they want to read them, ByteDance will hand them over on a silver platter.

Why worry about this you may ask? Don’t the NSA and GCHQ already have the means to read private digital communications if they want? Well yes, but this isn’t the point. It certainly isn’t a good thing from the perspective of civil liberties, but almost every developed country on earth has an extensive security apparatus with such capabilities. A foreign government having free access to the communications of millions of, mainly young, citizens of other countries, should they choose to ask, is a different matter. It is a direct affront to the sovereignty of individuals over their private communications, and of governments to determine security laws (however unpleasant they may be) within their jurisdiction. "Does it really make a difference which government reads your messages?" The Chinese government is not like other governments, and we shouldn’t treat them like they are. The People’s Republic of China is the most complex and efficient system of bureaucratic authoritarianism the world has ever known. The level of control it can exert over each individual citizen rivals that of any 20th-century dictatorship and outshines even the most Orwellian visions of dystopian fiction.

It is true that their vast power means that they probably can access whatever private communications they want from anywhere in the world, but western governments shouldn’t endeavour to make it any easier for them. Trump’s attempted ban, and the British government’s choice to exclude Huawei from developing our 5G infrastructure, shows some level of awareness of this reality.

It feels strange to put it in words, but for once I think we should hope that other western governments follow Donald Trump’s lead on this one.

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First published in 1965, InQuire is the University of Kent student newspaper.

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