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And it’s time to say whether fears of Chinese government meddling through technology might mean you should also worry about your smartphone made in a Chinese factory, your favorite video game, or popular shopping apps from China.
“If you’re going to take something from the American public, we need to tell them why,” said Tim Wu, who recently stepped down as a White House adviser on technology and competition policy.
Almost every expert that I’ve spoken to says that because there’s not much separation between companies in China and the country’s government, it is possible that TikTok and other Chinese technology companies could be Trojan horses for the Chinese Communist Party to harvest data on Americans or spew propaganda.
What isn’t clear is how much this risk is hypothetical rather than proven, or what the United States should do about it. I’m not going to settle that debate.
But U.S. officials have been warning about TikTok for four years without providing specific evidence of harm. If — as it appeared in Thursday’s congressional thrashing of TikTok’s chief executive — Congress is likely to try to ban TikTok or give the White House the authority to do so, then the U.S. government needs to be real with the public.
If there’s a smoking gun that China’s government has used TikTok to harvest Americans’ data or warp our beliefs, U.S. officials need to make that evidence public.
If the fear is what the Chinese Communist Party might do with TikTok, say so. And then explain how the U.S. government will prioritize the riskiest foreign technologies, consider narrower protections than outright bans and distinguish legitimate threats from hysteria.
Wu and Peter Harrell, a former national security official, recently advocated for more restrictions on foreign technology and comprehensive national privacy and cybersecurity laws affecting companies of any nationality.
Wu told me that it isn’t easy for the U.S. government to move beyond the vague message of trust us, TikTok is bad.
Members of Congress, White House officials and other people in Washington have classified information on the threat of Chinese technology that they can’t talk about, Wu said. They can’t even discuss the existence of this kind of classified information.
“The case is being made in a little bit of a bubble,” Wu said.
But American officials know how to talk to Americans about sensitive, classified information and help us distinguish legitimate risks from hyperbole. In 2020, for example, American officials said publicly that Russia had obtained voter information from at least one U.S. county and that Iran had collected voter-registration data and used it to send threatening emails to voters in several states.
U.S. officials explained how Russia and Iran obtained that information (some voter records are open to anyone), what the public should and shouldn’t worry about, and steps they had taken to protect voting from foreign tampering.
Experts in election interference told me that U.S. officials’ willingness to publicly communicate about foreign election meddling helped defuse the risk that it would undermine trust in the 2020 election. (Instead, Americans were the ones who undermined trust in the election.)
The intelligence community “started thinking about the public as the customer in a qualitatively different way than they had before,” said Gavin Wilde, a former director on the National Security Council who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The reality confronting Americans is that TikTok isn’t the first and it won’t be the last popular or novel technology from China. And there isn’t yet a comprehensive policy approach for a future that won’t be monopolized by American innovation, as the past century has been.
You might say to err on the side of security and keep out anything from China. A large majority of Americans are worried about TikTok’s ties to China, a recent Washington Post poll found, although they’re divided on the wisdom of banning the app.
It feels like there has been a permanent change in how the United States and Americans regard all technologies from China — with uncertain ripple effects for us.
Nearly all smartphones owned by Americans are made in Chinese factories. Does the government believe they’re risky? Lenovo, a Chinese company, is a top seller of personal computers. American corporations buy powerful back-office computers made by Chinese companies. The widely played video game League of Legends is owned by Chinese internet giant Tencent. Is all that still okay?
Two of the most widely downloaded apps in America, Shein and Temu, are shopping apps from China. Might the United States try to ban them? What about backyard drones made by China’s DJI? Solar panels on Americans’ homes from Chinese companies? Would the United States keep out electric vehicles made by Chinese brands or by Volvo, owned by a Chinese company?
There are big differences between an internet-connected sedan or an iPhone made on a Chinese assembly line and TikTok. The app helps shape what a billion people see and believe, and it collects intimate data about what we do.
But the mistrust between the United States and China can make it tough to distinguish the legitimate threats from imagined ones. That makes it more essential for the U.S. government to treat us like grown-ups.
I heard in the past few days from Frank Corley, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot and current airline pilot, who said he keeps scouring for specifics of TikTok’s risks.
“Nobody ever offers any examples of how it could be harmful or used by the Chinese government,” said Corley, 64. “Nobody is going to take this seriously until we know why.”
Three good reads:
- “The people most responsible for failing to safeguard Americans’ data, arguably, are American lawmakers.” (Washington Post)
- Here’s what China’s version of TikTok is really like: It’s heavily restricted at the government’s direction. (MIT Technology Review)
- “There’s a Problem With Banning TikTok. It’s Called the First Amendment.” (New York Times)
One tiny win
It’s clear that American lawmakers — and parents — are worried about what apps like TikTok are doing to children.
This is a complex topic. There’s not yet expert agreement on the connection between time spent with apps and harmful effects such as depression or eating disorders among teens.
Still, for parents who want to limit a child’s time with TikTok or put up guardrails for other apps, my colleague Heather Kelly has advice for you:
TikTok Family Pairing: This feature lets parents and guardians limit what a teenager can do with the app. From the Profile tab in TikTok, tap the menu in the upper right corner → Settings and Privacy → Family Pairing. From here, you can set a daily time limit for your teen and restrict who can send private messages to them.
Apps for parental controls: Bark, Qustodio and Boomerang can simplify the process by letting you control multiple apps and platforms at once. They often can be used for the more intense monitoring that parenting experts generally caution against.
Read more from Heather: A parents’ guide to apps and your child
And watch Tatum Hunter’s TikTok on myths and truths about TikTok:
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