(Updated September 21, 2020)
On August 6, 2020, the president of the United States signed two virtually identical executive orders (EOs) banning the use of both TikTok and WeChat. TikTok will survive due to a partnership deal with Oracle that, at this writing, the president has approved. And, a U.S. judge in California has stayed the WeChat ban and blocked the Commerce Department from forcing Apple and Alphabet’s Google to remove the app from their respective online stores.
While this situation plays out, I’d like to take a moment to reframe the issues.
Before we get into the details, I want to state for the record that this is an essay about data. It is not about the president’s political agenda. That topic is for others to discuss. Please take off your partisan hats and put on your “human being living in the 21st century” hats because there is no point in coloring this red or blue, or being willfully ignorant of this subject.
The Perceived Threat and the President’s Solution
To save you some time, here are the first two paragraphs of the EO banning TikTok:
- I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, find that additional steps must be taken to deal with the national emergency with respect to the information and communications technology and services supply chain declared in Executive Order 13873 of May 15, 2019 (Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain). Specifically, the spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People’s Republic of China (China) continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States. At this time, action must be taken to address the threat posed by one mobile application in particular, TikTok.
TikTok automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users, including Internet and other network activity information such as location data and browsing and search histories. This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information — potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.
Please reread the paragraphs above. Specifically note that there is a declared national emergency regarding “the information and communications technology and services supply chain.” This declaration and citation can also be found in the EO banning WeChat.
The National Emergency
In EO 13873 the president declares a national emergency as follows:
- I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, find that foreign adversaries are increasingly creating and exploiting vulnerabilities in information and communications technology and services, which store and communicate vast amounts of sensitive information, facilitate the digital economy, and support critical infrastructure and vital emergency services, in order to commit malicious cyber-enabled actions, including economic and industrial espionage against the United States and its people. I further find that the unrestricted acquisition or use in the United States of information and communications technology or services designed, developed, manufactured, or supplied by persons owned by, controlled by, or subject to the jurisdiction or direction of foreign adversaries augments the ability of foreign adversaries to create and exploit vulnerabilities in information and communications technology or services, with potentially catastrophic effects, and thereby constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States. […] In light of these findings, I hereby declare a national emergency with respect to this threat.
Who Collects Data?
There are two kinds of people: those who can turn data into action and those who can’t. I will call people who can turn data into action at the highest level the “data elite.” This is a gross oversimplification – but let me make it even simpler. In America, the data elite include (in no particular order): Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and a few other very large tech companies.
View a website, open an app, purchase something online, make phone call, watch a streaming video – no matter how you interact with the modern world, somewhere, someone, the data elite, are collecting the data you generate, adding metadata to describe it, and using it to their benefit.
How Much Data Is Collected?
There absolutely is a national emergency. In fact, there’s a worldwide emergency. Whenever you interact with an app (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google) or website or any other online data aggregator (Nest, Alexa, Waze, your smartphone), you are creating two sets of data. The first set of data is the data required to enable the technology you are using to work. This might include the location of your device, if you’re using Waze or your smartphone. Or the current temperature of your home, if you’re using a Nest thermostat. Or what you are interested in at the moment, if you are using Facebook, Amazon, Google, Instagram, Twitter, etc.
But you also create a second set of data. Sometimes referred to as “surplus data,” these data are not specifically required to achieve your immediate objective – for example, your location when you tap a like button, or the time of day you are usually in your home when you adjust your thermostat, or the kinds of images that get your attention when you stop scrolling on a social network.
What Will They Do with Your Data?
Surplus data are collected with the explicit purpose of improving the collecting organization’s ability to better engage and serve you. This may come in the form of serving you relevant content (audio, video, ads, posts, etc.) or making your experience with their goods or services better. There are almost no examples of the data elite abusing surplus data. (I would welcome documented case studies and concrete examples of people being harmed by data abuse – not identity theft, data abuse by big tech. Send your examples.)
I explore some uses of data in the following articles:
- TikTok Data Questions
- Personalized Politics
- Marketing 401: Correlation vs. Causation
- Google: I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means
The Real Problem
If data collection and use are a threat to national security, then singling out a country or a company or an app is nonsense. TikTok and WeChat have no better opportunity to use data against a single American or America than Facebook or Google or China or Russia or Tom, Dick or Harry do. The “Chinese Data Boogiepeople” are not coming to get you via TikTok or WeChat. The data elite already manipulate your world in ways you do not understand and have zero control over.
There is a huge problem with data collection and use. They are, for all intents and purposes, unregulated. I would welcome a bipartisan effort to legislate data collection and use policies designed for the 21st century. All business is digital and all digital life travels over the internet. This is a good place for the rule of law to apply.
The president would like you to think that by banning TikTok and WeChat our government is taking a proactive role in protecting you from something. All these bans are doing is pissing off a bunch of teenagers who like to make lip-sync videos (TikTok), and destroying the economics of the US-based Chinese diaspora (WeChat). As for your data safety, nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed. On second thought, one thing has changed. The fact that these apps can no longer be updated or patched actually creates a real security threat where none previously existed.
The solution we need starts with identification of the actual problem, not a political soundbite. If data collection and use pose a threat to our national security, the problem is not solved (or even impacted) by banning TikTok or WeChat. Let’s talk about it.
What do you think?
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Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.