Aug 302020

The saga that is the pressure by the administration of Donald Trump in the USA on Chinese app TikTok rages on. The app that is such a mystery to the older generation has 800 million users world-wide and, depending on which report being accurate, has between 50 to 100 million users in the USA alone. It has been downloaded 2 billion times. That is astounding statistics by any measure, but even more when one remembers that the app was launched in 2016.


Image Credit: Priyampatel4

More recently, several countries have banned or threatened to ban the application citing national security concerns. It may come across as bizarre that an app designed to record short video bursts used mainly by teenagers to dance or lip sync to popular tunes would be a national security concern, but the Americans, and others, who make the argument point out that an app that is designed to collect audio and video that is sitting on millions of smart devices is dangerous. They also point out that a Chinese law compels all technology companies to submit data per government request. The thought process seems justifiable. TikTok, and its parent company ByteDance, in the meantime denies any such data transfer and insists that it would not comply were it requested to hand over users’ data. The Chinese government can barely claim moral or intellectual higher ground however. It has famously banned or restricted non-Chinese technologies for years itself.

There is another side to this story however. That side tells a tale of a cold war run amok and a world where the Presumption Of Innocence, which is a tenet of Western Liberal Democracy being subverted before our eyes. ‘Innocent Until Proven Guilty’ has been an accepted principle upon which Western democracies have been built since the Middle Ages. In fact, the principle has its roots in Roman, Islamic and English common laws.

This makes the TikTok issue is a concern beyond the fate of one app – no matter how popular it may be. TikTok is the rare non-American app that is in the top ten of most used social applications. It sits in the same pantheon as Facebook and YouTube and ahead of popular applications like Twitter. Imagine that. At the same time the US government has attacked TikTok it has also stated that the other popular Chinese app WeChat (Weixin in China) will also be banned. The same administration, and its allies, has been levelling accusations of security shortcomings or downright danger at other Chinese technology companies like Huawei. It also does not help the accusers of TikTok that it was banned by India the week after that country and China fought a skirmish along their borders.

Here is where things become problematic. There has been no proof offered. There have been a plethora of reports, accusations and assumed smoking guns, but no proof. It is difficult to rationally act on the reported dangers of these technologies when after years of investigation and scrutiny on nearly every continent and by so many pundits and experts no one has been able to show this data transfer or catch the dangerous behaviour. Were these technologies problematic based on data and privacy concerns would it not make sense for the Western governments to outright ban them immediately as opposed to giving them 90days to sell the product to an American company? Microsoft and Wal-Mart and even Oracle have expressed interest. Worse, American intelligence agencies were famously caught red-handed doing the same thing they accuse the Chinese company of doing.

This makes a case for TikTok being caught in the midst of a cold war as opposed to being a security risk. This may be about keeping American technological dominance and blocking competition. After all, let us remember what happened with the leading security software provider Kaspersky Labs.


Image Credit: Turnisu


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