It’s Not Just China Stealing Your Data


Michael Hum, Staff Writer

Congress is now debating passing the RESTRICT Act, which will give the government more power to monitor foreign companies. Thanks to Congress, one of the most popular social media apps, TikTok, will likely be banned in the U.S. The American government cited how the Chinese government can use its data logging laws to gather and use Americans’ data. Although concerning, TikTok isn’t the only company that privately collects user data for their purposes; many also log data. Yet, only TikTok has to suffer the wrath of a hostile legislative hell-bent on making a political statement about data collection. Beijing having Americans’ data isn’t the last straw on a camel’s back of severe data privacy breaches. Tiananmen Square’s access to millions of Americans’ private data is no worse than what companies do.

Companies logging some sort of personal data is necessary. Browser cookies use an account and preferential data to make websites more user-friendly. Almost any online version requires some email or phone number to identify a person correctly. However, the claim that ByteDance has crossed some metaphorical line regarding data logging is entirely wrong. Congressional hearings about TikTok show the incompetence of government officials when it comes to how technology is used. Accessing any Wi-Fi network is mandatory for any social media app. That is one of many problems people have to face. Accessing data to target specific people is optional for an application, yet many companies are still doing that.

Take Meta, an American company that uses personal data for profit (their primary revenue is advertising). TikTok pales compared to the data Meta collects. While TikTok has potential access to emails, phone numbers, search results, and video information, Meta practices collecting IP addresses (location information) social tracking (to look at advertisements clicked), social networks (friends and contacts), as well as website information (for targeted ads)– way more than what TikTok collects. Why isn’t Meta scrutinized as well? It happened before, notably in 2018, following the scandal with Cambridge Analytica. But an American company battling in their home country over laws their lobbyists and company executives have known for decades has a more significant advantage than what ByteDance had to endure. 

While the claims about the Chinese being able to steal Americans’ data are valid, the entire saga is grossly exaggerated. Private companies will be incentivized to sell data to any company for a profit without consent, and the U.S. government will use data to survey its citizens unconstitutionally. How is this specific instance worse if more malicious actions have happened in the past?

Moreover, even if TikTok routes its data to the U.S. instead of China (they use Oracle, so they do,) the government cannot explicitly tell TikTok, or any social media company, to stop tracking users for their data. The government violates First Amendment rights for free speech and expression by doing so. Even if they cite a set a precedent instead of the Constitution, Supreme Court decisions– Lamont v. Postmaster General and Berman v. Parker– ensure and establish that the government cannot interfere with the “free flow of informational material,” even if it circumvents international trading with “hostile” countries, such as China. The RESTRICT Act (which attempts to avoid these decisions) is unlikely to be passed because of these court decisions. A legislative attempt to specifically ban foreign apps from obtaining Americans’ data only shows our collective paranoia– and the lack of incentive to solve the problem of universal data privacy concerns. Instead, our collective paranoia blames it on other foreign companies– about the same issues predominantly American companies take part in and exploit for their corporate aspirations. Even if ByteDance’s service is banned domestically, it doesn’t matter– other companies still have data about a person – and they will. 

With time running out and opposition increasing, it’s difficult for Washington to initiate the ban on TikTok. Even if they do, the problem still lingers. To solve this problem of implicit data collection, it’s more apt to solve all sides of the issue, even regulating the types of data American companies can take. Regulate data collection from private companies, explicitly define what a government can take from a person, and stop blaming foreign companies for exposing something already happening. Data logging isn’t just an imported issue from Tiananmen Square. We have it too. 


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