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TikTok: Complicit in Xinjiang, Spies on Users, Traumatises Moderators

 


Over one billion people globally hold an active account on the short-video sharing platform, TikTok, including 67% of American teenagers. The UK has 17 million active users, who spend an average of 66 minutes every day scrolling on the app. Despite its relatively recent launch, the app’s influence has grown at an unprecedented rate, something analysts put down to lockdown boredom followed by the platform’s uncanny algorithm that shows users the videos they want to see. 




New research into privacy concerns regarding TikTok has found that the app’s in-app browser can track a user’s individual key presses. Researchers explain how collecting information on what people type on their phones while visiting third-party websites – which might include online payments for products advertised through the app – is often a feature of malware that hackers can use to collect a user’s passwords and payment details. 




The researchers also explain how this type of software is often used by tech companies for testing, it is rarely included in the commercial release of the app, as it is with TikTok – whether it is enabled or not. 




The New York Times contacted an independent software engineer and security engineer specialising in apps, Jane Manchun Wang, who told them “Based on Krause’s [one of the researchers] findings, the way TikTok’s custom in-app browser monitors keystrokes is problematic, as the user might enter their sensitive data such as login credentials on external websites.” 




One of the lead researchers, Mr Krause, said that whether or not TikTok has the code enabled, “The problem is they have infrastructure set up to do this stuff.” 




TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, and is the first Chinese social media app to be a success in the global market – in fact, TikTok is not available in China, where ByteDance developed an alternative app, Douyin. 




The app’s success presents a problem to the west, and especially the US: The vast majority of successful social media apps up until now have been based in the US and subject to US scrutiny – whereas now users must come to terms with a social media company operating under an authoritarian government. TikTok has been accused by hacker group Anonymous of being an “app created as spyware by the Chinese government.” However, they also accuse Facebook and Instagram of being spyware for the US government - "China isn't the only nation-state with an unquenchable appetite for data," Matt Chiodi, a chief trust officer at Cerby, told CSO online. "Consider that the U.S. has been the biggest data requester for many of the most popular social media platforms." 




However, ByteDance says that it does not share information with the Chinese government, arguing that it had migrated the physical data-storage facilities to the US servers operated by Oracle. This, however, is a move that has done little to reassure experts in the field. 




TikTok’s privacy policy, which all users must agree to in order to use the app, specifically states that the company can share data with “law enforcement [...] or other third parties if we have good faith belief that it is necessary to: [...] comply with applicable law, legal process or government requests.” 




Although western countries have safeguards protecting the public against companies sharing personal data with governments, China has no such barrier, and so by using TikTok users are allowing their personal data to be shared with one of the world’s most authoritarian states – with the only barrier being TikTok deciding if it has a “good faith belief” that it would comply with “government requests.” 




However, TikTok in 2019 said that no user data was subject to Chinese laws and US user data is stored in the US, with only backup data stored in Singapore. They also state that they are “not influenced by any foreign government.” 




Nevertheless, if China-based employees can continue to have access to the data, its physical location is irrelevant, one employee is reported to have said in recordings of internal meetings which were leaked to Buzzfeed this year: “It remains to be seen if at some point product and engineering can still figure out how to get access, because at the end of the day, it’s their tools.” 




“They built them all in China.” 




The privacy concerns come after a wave of controversies for TikTok spanning as long as the app has been popular. From other concerns about the app spying on users' clipboard contents to traumatised moderators, countries have plenty of reasons to be wary of the app. 




Speaking to Forbes this August, former TikTok moderators told of shared spreadsheets of material deemed to break TikTok’s community guidelines. One employee, Whitney Turner, who left the role in 2021 testified of the shared DDR - “Daily Required Reading” - spreadsheet, widely and freely accessible to employees, containing “hundreds of images of children who were naked or being abused.” 




“I was moderating and thinking: This is someone’s son. This is someone’s daughter. And these parents don’t know that we have this picture, this video, this trauma, this crime saved,” Turner told the magazine. 




“If parents knew that, I’m pretty sure they would burn TikTok down.” 




Another moderation-related controversy is TikTok’s reported treatment of topics that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) - i.e., the Chinese government – disapproves of, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre and Tibetan independence. 




In 2019, The Guardian revealed leaked documents detailing TikTok’s moderation guidelines at the time. Although the company says that the moderation policies have since been made less specific – to focus on a more sustainable way of moderation – they initially included rules such as a ban of “criticism/attack towards policies, social rules of any country, such as constitutional monarchy, monarchy, parliamentary system, separation of powers, socialism system, etc.” 




In 2020, Hana Hassan, an 18-year-old graduate from New Jersey, posted a video criticising the Chinese government’s policies of mass incarceration in Xinjiang disguised as a make-up video. The short video was viewed more than 1.6 million times before being removed from the site and her account blocked – for allegedly violating a policy on terrorism-related material. 




Hassan told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that “anytime I speak on government or politics, they’ll usually take those videos down. They have permanently banned me from live streaming [...] and they don’t really give me a reason besides violating community guidelines.” The incident has fuelled concerns and added to user experiences of TikTok’s censorship of topics sensitive to the CCP regime. 




The accusations go beyond censorship, as a 2019 report by experts at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre said that many Chinese tech companies “are engaged in deeply unethical behaviours in Xinjiang, where their work directly supports and enables mass human rights abuses.” 




In the eye-opening report, the authors describe how ByteDance has been working with authorities in the region on a program called “Xinjiang Aid,” where Chinese companies open factories in Xinjiang to employ locals who are detained in the ‘re-education’ camps. 




The report also details how ByteDance is assisting Xinjiang authorities by using Douyin to “propagate and showcase Hotan’s new image.” Hotan is a region of Xinjiang which is considered to be where the repression has been the most severe: Intelligencer, a subsidiary of the Washington D.C.-based Vox Media, reports that women in regions including Hotan are subject to regular forced pregnancy checks, intrauterine devices and threatened with detention for having “too many” children – birth rates among Uighur population in the region fell by more than 60% between 2015 and 2018. 




A large and growing number of US congresspeople are using TikTok to reach out to their younger constituents, prompting the US House of Representatives to warn members not to use the platform over the privacy concerns. The upcoming midterm elections are the first “TikTok elections,” as coined by The Sunday Times. Concerns over the company’s influence over the election are well-founded given the reported influence of Facebook in Trump’s 2016 victory and the UK’s Brexit vote. 




Kenya’s recent election saw TikTok flooded with misinformation and hate speech, including posts threatening ethnic violence slipping through the company’s moderation policies. Odanga Magung, from the Mozilla Foundation and who analysed the app’s handling of the election, wrote that “TikTok is failing its first real test in Africa.”  




It is yet to be seen how TikTok will perform at the US midterms and other elections in the west. 




An investigative journalist and author specialising in cybersecurity, Maria Genova, told cyber-news website vpnoverview, “There’s a reason several countries have banned it. It’s unbelievable how much information an app like that pulls from your phone. [...] If it’s downloaded massively, you can observe the entire population and draw conclusions from that.” 




Dakota Cary, a consultant with Krebs Stamos Group, a cybersecurity consulting firm based in Washington D.C., told CSO, “Don’t think of TikTok’s data in isolation, but what could a nation-state do with it in conjunction with data from public and dark web sources.” 




“All of the data collected on foreign nationals by the PRC eventually ends up in this kind of system and will likely only by used when they determine someone is of interest” - for example, foreign nationals visiting China, Chinese nationals working or studying abroad, or members of anti-government organisations.” 




Citing the app as a threat to India’s national security, the country has banned the app. Trump issued an executive order banning the app as well as Chinese-owned WeChat, although this never came into force after facing legal challenges before the Biden administration took a different stance on the issue. 




Despite all these issues with TikTok, people continue to use it. As The Guardian’s Alex Hearn puts it in his article, “if you have a problem with TikTok’s ad and tracking tech, you probably have a problem with the wider software ecosystem in 2022.” In reality, the value of user data to TikTok is the same as it is to Facebook or Google – data is money – but the question must be asked by western governments whether having user data collected by a direct geopolitical opponent is a good idea or poses any threat. 




However, with the explosive popularity of the platform and its incredible influence on young people, it is unlikely that people will simply stop using the app. The techscape has become a new battleground of global ideologies. What governments and companies do to win this battle remains to be seen. 




Edited by: Whitney Edna Ibe


Photo: TikTok logo on a phone screen in front of the Chinese flag, Solen Feyissa via unsplash.com



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