TikTok’s parent company ByteDance admits to spying on U.S. users. Politicians are out for blood.

TikTok is just entering a world of pain, having just released a scathing report about its own employees receiving US users’ data. As this report comes at a time when a key cohort of Americans wants to ban the app altogether, expect TikTok to become a major political talking point as the 2024 election cycle progresses.

On Thursday, ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, released the results of an internal investigation. Yes, ByteDance confirmed that four of its employees in China collected the data from two TikTok accounts of US journalists. And TikTok really, really shouldn’t do that.

The report emboldens high-profile enemies of TikTok like Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, whose bill banning TikTok on US government devices passed the Senate just over a week ago. This bill has yet to pass the House of Representatives to become law, but statewide bans on TikTok on government devices are already law in Texas, North Dakota, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Utah. West Virginia, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Tennessee, Alabama, Virginia, Nebraska and Montana.

Crucially, the report doesn’t contain similarly damning details what was done with the data. It probably wasn’t printed out, stapled in a dossier, and handed to Xi Jinping himself, if you’re imagining it. It appears instead that a handful of ByteDance employees looking for internal leaks managed to locate US reporters’ user credentials and IP addresses in an ultimately foiled – but demonically clever – attempt to determine whether ByteDance employees suspected of the leak were ever physically near the journalists. That didn’t happen in the end, and everyone involved was reportedly fired.

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But Hawley and his ilk have made it clear that they envision TikTok being used as something much scarier: a spy apparatus for the Chinese Communist Party, as expounded (to cite just one random example) in a tweet by Hawley’s fellow Republican senator Ted Cruz , in which he notes that TikTok tends to “dodge” questions about the communists and says “it’s clear they are spying on users”.

It may be an exaggeration at this point to say that there is evidence that TikTok is part of China’s master plan to make Americans communist. But is the mere acquisition of the data a legitimate scandal in itself? Absolutely.

That’s because the US team made some sweeping data security claims in 2019 – when TikTok was a burgeoning internet phenomenon and coverage of it consistently contained passages raising concerns about its ties to the Chinese government. The most important of these claims is that US user data is kept in the United States and does not go to ByteDance’s headquarters in China. The US team may have thought so when they made that statement, but with Thursday’s reveal, the company is now admitting it wasn’t true.

And previous reports have suggested that ByteDance is collaborating with Chinese propaganda efforts. At least one of those reports — and for the record, ByteDance denies it — came from Emily Baker-White, one of the two journalists now spied on by ByteDance.

Another luminary of the anti-TikTok crowd in the Senate is Marco Rubio, who introduced legislation shortly before the release of this latest report that would ban TikTok nationwide (something former President Donald Trump unilaterally attempted in 2020, but was overruled by the courts ). In his press release about the bill, Rubio is quite exaggerated. “We know that it is under the People’s Republic of China. No more time can be wasted on meaningless negotiations with a CCP puppet company.”

In his tweet about TikTok, Rubio briefly alludes to similar practices on US platforms. In fact, US-based social media platforms are cooperating with US intelligence agencies and helping spread positive US messages abroad. Additionally, US intelligence collectors — particularly FBI agents — have openly attempted to “instantly search and monitor” social media posts, using sophisticated data-mining schemes to gather information about users. And at least one study of user behavior on Facebook specifically shows that knowledge of this spying affects users’ ability to feel like they can speak freely, a phenomenon dubbed the “spiral of silence.” If this sounds familiar, it might be due to its resemblance to the well-documented self-censorship practiced by members of the Chinese media.

Incidentally, a “ban” on TikTok will most likely not result in TikTok simply disappearing. Instead, it would most likely result in ByteDance recouping its loss by selling it to an American ally like Microsoft, as it almost did in 2020.

In other words, yes, TikTok is doing sketchy things with some US user data, and it potentially has the power to do a lot more. But banning TikTok — or selling it to companies like Microsoft, a company that has a history of working with spies — wouldn’t stop a social media user from being spied on or influenced by intelligence agencies.

https://mashable.com/article/tiktok-spying-internal-report-us-users TikTok’s parent company ByteDance admits to spying on U.S. users. Politicians are out for blood.

Zack Zwiezen

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