Why Virginia banned TikTok on state owned devices
TikTok is a Chinese-owned app that was created to showcase short, usually funny videos, but Aynne Kokas who heads UVA’s East Asia Center, says it’s become much more.
“Over 25% of people under 30 get their news from TikTok now, and a lot of people in Gen-Z also use Tik Tok as a search platform, so it’s not just about where they are getting entertainment or where they’re getting news but where they’re finding all information,” she says.
Kokas is the author of a new book – Trafficking Data: How China Is Winning the Battle for Digital Sovereignty. In it she explains that TikTok knows how much time you spend online, where you’re going in cyberspace, what your voice sounds like, what your face looks like and who your contacts are. That’s information Chinese officials could also have.
“TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is based in China and faces things like national security data audits from the Chinese government,” Kokas explains.
She admits China may have no interest in any one person, but they can see big pictures using big data.
“It’s not just about spying on individuals. It’s also about being able to generate more effective mis- or disinformation -- being able to model an entire society.”
Kokas says it’s good that states are banning TikTok, and in Virginia’s case, WeChat.
“The large number of states that we’ve seen banning TikTok on government devices has put pressure on Congress to address these issues. I think also protecting state government infrastructure is really important. It could be addressed more comprehensively than just banning one app, but it is important for states to be careful about their civic infrastructure. We definitely underinvest in cybersecurity protection for state and local governments.”
She notes WeChat may collect banking information or data about your health, and firms that collect genetic information – like 23 And Me – could compromise privacy for you and your descendants. She warns apps from Syngenta – used by farmers in the U.S. – could put food security at risk, and a company called GE Appliances, also owned by the Chinese, monitors the behaviors of Americans in their homes.
Kokas adds that plenty of U.S. companies also collect personal data without much accountability – which you might think would keep her awake at night.
“You know what, I’m a great sleeper actually, but I do find this stuff worrisome.”
She’s careful about the apps she downloads and how much time she spends online, but like many of us she admits to owning a smart phone and connecting with colleagues on Zoom.
“It’s really tough, because a lot of us are embedded in these systems, and it’s really hard to escape.”
Which is why she urges all of us to let lawmakers know we want a comprehensive, systemic approach to protecting our privacy – something the Chinese already have.
“Facebook has been trying to enter the Chinese market after being banned in 2008-2009, but the Chinese government is actually very careful about the types of platforms that are able to gather data in China and very protective. Chinese nationals actually have a lot more protection from corporate data exploitation than Americans do.”
And she urges parents to hold off on supplying their children with devices that connect to the Internet for as long as possible.