A TikTok ban isn’t about privacy, it’s about politics

The TikTok app is likely to be banned in a handful of western countries. It’s already on the move in the US and all that’s left is for the right politician to sign the right piece of paper and it’s gone from here. Someone smart will find a workaround, but for the average user there is no way to get the app and it won’t work if you find it.

This was a stupid idea when former President Trump wanted to do it, and it remains a stupid idea under the current administration. This silly idea is only being promoted because of the origin of TikTok, not what it does. Of course I’m talking about China.

I’m not a fan of TikTok and I think banning TikTok on government or managed devices is a smart move. There is no doubt that the app collects far more user data than necessary and has the ability to monitor everything you type on your keyboard through its browser. I’m not a security researcher, but I don’t need to be because those that are — even those who like TikTok — tell me it’s a privacy nightmare. Installing it on a phone where your work email address is government-managed is not a good thing.

The big problem with this is that there are many other apps that are just as bad (perhaps even worse) when it comes to invading consumer privacy. We know of the few instances where companies have gone too far and been caught, when Facebook (now Meta) and Twitter have both been caught doing things their own privacy policies said would never happen. So why ban TikTok and not Twitter?

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(Image credit: Android Central)

The answer is exactly what you think: China. They don’t even try to hide it as one of the things suggested to thwart a nationwide ban is for ByteDance to sell TikTok to a Western company, just like the last time someone wanted to ban TikTok. They’re basically saying, take China out of the equation and we’re ok with all the data breaches. Why?

I’m tired of ending paragraphs with a question, so let’s answer that – people and governments are afraid of China. Especially when it comes to surveillance and intelligence gathering. In today’s political climate, the norm is not to trust China for whatever reason.

I’m not going to pass judgment here because like almost everyone else I don’t have all the details and I’m not privy to everything that’s going on. I agree that having an opposing government knowing state secrets is a very bad thing, and having the same government spying on ordinary citizens is just as bad for a variety of reasons. Furthermore, I don’t know what China (or Germany or Canada or the United States) is doing when it comes to “genuine spy stuff,” but I suppose it’s no good.

I also don’t pretend to know the implications of the Chinese government knowing what we see on TikTok, but I want them not to. I’d rather no government knew. One thing I agree with is that accessing the algorithm used to promote content could be used for political purposes. Fill any user’s timeline with pro-Trump or pro-Biden or pro-Whoever video content and it will sway some potential voters. Not good when disinformation is being pushed, as was the case with Facebook.

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(Image credit: Google)

But I do know one thing – the real solution is to strengthen consumer privacy laws. The US government is denying China access to the data of American users and is addressing this with a content-neutral data protection law. It protects American user data from Meta, Google, Amazon and any other company. It also helps in ways most people don’t realize when it comes to actual governments getting your data.

The Chinese government has access to user data upon request. This differs from other countries like the US, which require warrants. If the Chinese government tells Google or Apple that they want all data on a user in China, they get it and there is no resistance in a courtroom. Unfortunately, the US government has workarounds and takes what it wants.

(Image credit: Andrew Myrick / Android Central)

One of the ways is through data brokers. These companies work with app developers or advertisers to collect personally identifiable information and then sell it to the highest bidder, which often includes state and federal government agencies. Another way to get around that pesky Fourth Amendment is to let other governments like the UK do the search and seizure and then pass on anything of interest under the guise of a global war on terror. Yes, this is a real thing that can happen. I won’t even wade into the Patriot Act, but you see where I’m going.

Perhaps that’s why the US isn’t pushing for stronger data protection. It makes you think, doesn’t it?

In any case, the ban on TikTok is just a band-aid that will upset many people. It’s not even a very good patch and that’s coming from someone who thinks the app is as bad as the “government” says it is.

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If you really want to prevent the “bad guys” from having access to a treasure trove of user data, make tougher laws to protect them and impose harsh penalties when companies break them. No data collected means no data is shared with a communist Chinese boogeyman.