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Is Tiktok spying on you?


Hooi San Ng

By

August 26th, 2020


TikTok- it’s best known for its memes and viral dance crazes, but underneath this light-hearted exterior are serious conversations about privacy, spying and international intrigue! Hooi San Ng explores the cyber-espionage allegations surrounding Tiktok.


Tiktok, a viral video-sharing app wildly popular with teens, has recently been under intense political scrutiny by the Trump administration over national security concerns.[1] In particular, the app has raised questions as to how it stores personal data and whether it censors politically sensitive content.[2] Although the surveillance debate surrounding Tiktok garnered a large amount of attention, these cybersecurity concerns are not unique and bear many similarities to the cybersecurity concerns about Chinese telecom company Huawei relating to 5G network development.[3] This article therefore dissects these cyber-espionage allegations in accordance to Chinese national security legislations. 

Article 7 of China’s National Intelligence Law of 2017

Although Tiktok has issued a similar statement to Huawei’s clarifying that they are not ‘under the thumb’ of the Chinese Communist Party and would refuse any request for data[4], critics fear that the national security legislations in China would leave little room for opting out if asked.[5] 

Pursuant to China’s National Intelligence Law of 2017[6], Article 7 states: 

“Any organization and citizen shall, in accordance with the law, support, provide assistance, and cooperate in national intelligence work, and guard the secrecy of any national intelligence work that they are aware of. The state shall protect individuals and organizations that support, cooperate with, and collaborate in national intelligence work.”

Crucially, the scope and parameters of what constitutes ‘national intelligence work’ appear to be intentionally left ambiguous and open to varying interpretations by the Chinese Community Party.[7] What Article 7 encompasses may be so expansive in its application, such that it may even include ‘national intelligence work’ extending well beyond China’s geographic borders. This provision therefore has stirred considerable controversy in Western media, and raises the question- Is Tiktok spying on us? 

Further concerns have also arisen in relation to the nature of the relationship between the authoritarian Chinese Community Party and the private companies incorporated in China.[8] Despite Tiktok’s statement of refusing any request for data, critics fear that the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party may induce private companies such as Tiktok into a cooperative relationship. Given the opacity of these issues, there is no knowing whether a little behind-the-scenes manoeuvring – either by political pressure or by monetary means – can be done to achieve the desired end. This explains why US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alleged that Tiktok users are at risk of their personal data falling “in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party”.[9]

US’ foreign intelligence surveillance

However, is Article 7 substantially different from the US’ foreign intelligence surveillance? Section 702 of the US’ Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978[10] permits the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence to jointly authorise, for a period of up to one year from the effective date of authorisation, the targeting of persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States to acquire foreign intelligence information. This provision differs from Article 7 in that it does not apply to their own American citizens regardless of location or any person located inside the US. However, as is the case for Article 7, section 702 permits the collection of foreign intelligence outside the country’s geographical borders. To put it simply, the US’ national security legislation does not appear to be substantially different from Article 7 considering both legislations have broad scope of power to collect foreign intelligence information.

Moreover, as the US government points an accusing finger at Chinese companies like Tiktok and Huawei for cyberespionage, it begs the question: Does the Chinese Communist Party’s expansive interpretation of ‘national intelligence work’ differ markedly from the US’ approach to their own national security challenges? In 2013, details of the government surveillance programs empowered by Section 702 were leaked to the public by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. These leaks included the revelation that the US National Security Agency had spied on its allies, including French presidents Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande[11], and German Chancellor Angela Merkel[12]. Perhaps, the pragmatic reality in the world of intelligence is that there are no “friends”. 

Although the Snowden revelation occurred during the Obama administration, it is worth noting that section 702 – the provision empowering the National Security Agency to conduct some of its most invasive electronic surveillance – was reauthorised by President Trump in January 2018, and is only due to expire in December 2023[13]

Further concerns pertaining to Tiktok’s collection of personal data to influence national politics are also reminiscent of similar events in the US. During the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal in early 2018, it was revealed that millions of Facebook users’ personal data was bought by Cambridge Analytica to be used for Donald Trump’s political advertising.[14] It therefore seems ironic that the Trump administration is accusing China of disseminating Chinese propaganda through Tiktok when it had previously used the data harvested by Cambridge Analytica to influence political preference. 

As daunting as Chinese national security legislation may seem, it appears that the US’ national security legislations are also highly intrusive. In authorising such surveillance powers, Tiktok user’s privacy may nevertheless be infringed regardless of whether ownership lies in the hands of a private US company or a private Chinese company. This may explain why President Trump issued an executive order giving Bytedance 90 days to sell Tiktok to private companies in the US.[15] Perhaps it is better in his view that the data is in the US’ control. 

References:


[1] Kolodny, L., 2020. Trump orders ByteDance to divest from its U.S. TikTok business within 90 days. CNBC, [online] Available at: <https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/14/president-trump-orders-bytedance-to-divest-from-its-us-tiktok-business-within-90-days.html> [Accessed 24 August 2020].

[2] Roumeliotis, G., Yang, Y., Wang, E. and Alper, A., 2020. Exclusive: U.S. opens national security investigation into TikTok – sources. Reuters, [online] Available at: <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tiktok-cfius-exclusive/exclusive-u-s-opens-national-security-investigation-into-tiktok-sources-idUSKBN1XB4IL> [Accessed 24 August 2020].

[3] Hoffman, S. and Kania, E., 2018. Huawei And The Ambiguity Of China’S Intelligence And Counter-Espionage Laws. [online] The Strategist. Available at: <https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/huawei-and-the-ambiguity-of-chinas-intelligence-and-counter-espionage-laws/> [Accessed 24 August 2020].

[4] BBC News, 2020. TikTok: We are not ‘under the thumb’ of China. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.com/news/business-53469766#:~:text=Video%2Dsharing%20app%20TikTok%20has,controlled%20by%20the%20Chinese%20government.&text=%22The%20suggestion%20that%20we%20are,%2C%22%20he%20told%20the%20BBC.> [Accessed 24 August 2020].

[5]Lian, Y., 2019. Where Spying Is the Law. The New York Times, [online] Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/13/opinion/china-canada-huawei-spying-espionage-5g.html> [Accessed 24 August 2020].

[6] National Intelligence Law (国家情报法). Article 7.

[7] Hoffman, S. and Kania, E., 2018. Huawei And The Ambiguity Of China’S Intelligence And Counter-Espionage Laws. [online] The Strategist. Available at: <https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/huawei-and-the-ambiguity-of-chinas-intelligence-and-counter-espionage-laws/> [Accessed 24 August 2020].

[8] Hoffman, S. and Kania, E., 2018. Huawei And The Ambiguity Of China’S Intelligence And Counter-Espionage Laws. [online] The Strategist. Available at: <https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/huawei-and-the-ambiguity-of-chinas-intelligence-and-counter-espionage-laws/> [Accessed 24 August 2020].

[9] Creitz, C., 2020. Pompeo warns of potential restriction of Chinese TikTok app; US users may be ceding info to ‘Chinese Communists’. Fox News, [online] Available at: <https://www.foxnews.com/media/mike-pompeo-tik-tok-china-communist-social-media-spying-fox-ingraham> [Accessed 24 August 2020].

[10] Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Section 702.

[11] BBC News, 2015. US ‘spied on French presidents’ – Wikileaks. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.com/news/33248484> [Accessed 24 August 2020].

[12] Reuters, 2015. U.S. spy agency tapped German chancellery for decades: WikiLeaks. [online] Available at: <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-usa-spying-idUSKCN0PI2AD20150709> [Accessed 24 August 2020].

[13] Volz, D., 2018. Trump signs bill renewing NSA’s internet surveillance program. Reuters, [online] Available at: <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-cyber-surveillance/trump-signs-bill-renewing-nsas-internet-surveillance-program-idUSKBN1F82MK> [Accessed 24 August 2020].

[14] Ma, A. and Gilbert, B., 2019. Facebook understood how dangerous the Trump-linked data firm Cambridge Analytica could be much earlier than it previously said. Here’s everything that’s happened up until now. Business Insider, [online] Available at: <https://www.businessinsider.com/cambridge-analytica-a-guide-to-the-trump-linked-data-firm-that-harvested-50-million-facebook-profiles-2018-3#where-did-it-come-from-3> [Accessed 24 August 2020].

[15] Kolodny, L., 2020. Trump orders ByteDance to divest from its U.S. TikTok business within 90 days. CNBC, [online] Available at: <https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/14/president-trump-orders-bytedance-to-divest-from-its-us-tiktok-business-within-90-days.html> [Accessed 24 August 2020].

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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