Several Chinese-owned smartphone apps have drawn the scrutiny of US lawmakers for possibly posing a threat to US national security. These social platforms give Chinese companies, and thus the Chinese government, unprecedented access to US users’ sensitive information, including phone numbers, social media contacts, browsing history, location data, IP address, device data, cookies, and other metadata. The location technologies allow GPS data derived from apps to reveal a user’s location in real-time. In late 2018, media outlets reported that fitness device apps revealed the locations of several classified military installations, which led observers to discern the daily movement of users. There is substantiated fear among US officials that China could use location data and user preferences to blackmail, extort, and surveil app users. The Chinese government’s unrestricted access to users’ sensitive personal data constitutes a security concern to all individuals who use Chinese-owned apps.
Chinese-owned Apps Compromises Users’ Privacy
TikTok is one of the most popular and most downloaded smartphone apps in the world. According to 2019 statistics, TikTok has 500 million active users worldwide, with 110 million users in the US. The app lets users create and share short clip videos and is available in 155 countries and 75 languages. This popularity has led US regulators to inquire whether Chinese-owned social media platforms, such as TikTok and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) dating app, Grindr, constitute a threat to US national security. Grindr previously came under scrutiny for failing to secure personal user data to include deleted photos, real-time location, and private medical records. Earlier this year, US lawmakers forced Grindr’s Chinese parent company to sell the company. Any foreign investment that involves the transfer of sensitive technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), is evaluated to determine its potential to threaten US national security. Through AI, the Chinese government may be able to discern user preferences and interests, which the Communist Party of China (CCP) could use to serve Beijing’s interests.
In early December, TikTok found itself at the center of a class-action lawsuit accused of transferring “vast quantities of private and personally-identifiable user data” to China. The lawsuit alleges that TikTok has the technological sophistication to re-create a user’s biometric information from a user’s video, and the app developer secretly installs spyware on users’ phones that could be used to “identify, profile, and track users” in the US “now and in the future.” This concern over the app’s inability to safeguard user data has prompted the US Army to prohibit cadets from using TikTok while representing the military in an official capacity for fear that China could use the platform to gather and release sensitive information that could troll or harass military users. The greatest fear lies not in the Chinese possession of sensitive data, but that the country could weaponize such information to sow discontent and spread misinformation on foreign soil that benefits Chinese national interests.
China’s Role in Online Moderation Reveals Discrimination and Censorship
TikTok has faced several allegations of censoring content that is deemed offensive to Beijing and/or differs from the official Chinese narrative. Former TikTok employees acknowledged that China-based moderators demanded that US-based employees remove videos deemed “objectionable” or “culturally problematic” from the platform. Leaked documents reveal how TikTok discriminated against videos of “special users” such as LGBTQ individuals, people with disabilities such as Down syndrome or autism, and users deemed fat. TikTok refused to recommend videos of users in these categories. Most recently, TikTok suspended a user’s account, allegedly because the user commented on Chinese human rights violations and oppression of Uighur Muslims.
General Technology Guidance for All Users of Chinese-owned Apps
To avoid Chinese censorship or temporary deactivation of a Chinese-owned media account, users should not feature videos that showcase vaping or provocative dancing and avoid liking, sharing, or hashtagging content that discusses social and political issues such as:
- The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
- Terrorism, terrorist groups, or terrorist leaders
- Tibet or the Dalai Lama
- The Tiananmen Square incident
- The plight of the Uighur people
- Human/civil rights
- The Hong Kong protest movement
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