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Google collects temporal + location information of Android handsets by default and is only a subpoena away from US authorities. The current administration is concerned that China would be able to use TikTok to track its users in a manner similar to Google. It is my understanding that just about every app has the ability to track users, who are ready to agree to the terms of service. It's unclear to me how any country tracking TikTok users is a national security issue.

Is there any line of reasoning that enables one to sort out if the subject matter is a genuine national security issue or political posturing?

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TikTok doesn't take just your location data, it also takes your clipboard. Everything you copy/paste while TikTok is open, even if it's only open in the background, is sent to their servers. So passwords, banking info, bitcoin addresses, anything at all that you might copy. This is not normal. This is why it is a national security risk.


Caleb Chen, TikTok seems to be copying and pasting your clipboard with every keystroke, June 25, 2020.

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    But why ban TikTok instead of, say, banning these shady practices in general? – Rebecca J. Stones Aug 3 at 7:09
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    Because it's easier from political point of view.Also these "shady practices" have valid reasons to be there in the system and android has them specifically for for example antivirus software or keyboards. The keyboard on your screen is a legitimate application that has a reason to be there and have these funtions and maybe send them somewhere (what about remote control terminal application? or the application sending your SMS/any other chat programs). – mishan Aug 3 at 8:42
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    The article you link to describes that TikTok, like several other apps, grabs data off of the clipboard. However, it explicitly states "it’s possible that they’re also grabbing the contents and storing it for later to be sent off with the other information that TikTok phones home with" (emphasis added). As far as I'm aware, there wasn't any analysis of what happens to that data -- it might not have left the user's device. – hichris123 Aug 3 at 21:42
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    @Ryan_L I certainly agree, but your answer states "this is not normal" when the New York Times, PUBG Mobile, The Weather Network, and 29 other apps do the same thing. It also states "everything... is sent to their servers," when there's no evidence of that. Should TikTok access clipboards? No, and I believe they stopped. Is TikTok a security risk? Maybe, although so are other apps. But your answer is wrong. – hichris123 Aug 3 at 23:26
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    -1. This sounds like a reasonable statement, but I'm not seeing it backed up by anything from the U.S. President or other policy makers. So...what makes it true? – indigochild Aug 4 at 22:21
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An article in Wired took a look at this a few weeks ago. By and large, the experts agree with your assessment that TikTok in particular poses no special security risk and that a ban is not justified. Here's a key paragraph from the Wired piece.

TikTok’s fiercest opponents argue that it should be viewed as a dangerous Trojan horse for Chinese Communist Party espionage. On the other side are those who frame that criticism as merely thinly-veiled xenophobia, a result of rising racism toward Chinese people and deteriorating relations between the US and Beijing. In between are plenty of people who aren’t quite sure what to believe. So far, like with Russian anti-virus firm Kaspersky a few years before, US officials have provided little evidence for their claims about TikTok aside from pointing to its country of origin. Absent hard proof, what’s left are more extrapolated dangers, like whether the Chinese government, which the US says was responsible for a notorious series of breaches at American institutions, would pilfer user data from TikTok, or censor content on the platform the way it tightly controls the internet within its own borders.

Here's a more recent piece from The Atlantic, which goes a little more in-depth and provides some helpful context:

In certain respects, TikTok is more of a headache for Washington than any other Chinese company is—even one routinely in the political crosshairs, Huawei. The national-security case against Huawei is much more direct. The firm supplies what is known as critical infrastructure, the nuts and bolts of wireless systems. Any government would, and should, be wary that such vital communications networks could be vulnerable to potential foreign adversaries. But the equipment Huawei makes can readily be supplied by other companies from friendlier nations, such as Sweden’s Ericsson, and its gear can simply be torn out and replaced, as Britain is seeking to do.

TikTok presents a very different conundrum. For one, the app is already on millions of American smartphones. Washington’s concerns about data security in regards to China have been heightened by two recent hacks: of the credit-reporting firm Equifax in 2017, and of the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management in 2015. In both cases, security experts blame Beijing. The assumption is that Chinese authorities are compiling dossiers on U.S. citizens for unknown, but probably compromising, purposes. TikTok could be a handy device for stuffing the files with juicy new details. Even more, TikTok is in the business of content. It can just as readily act as a conduit for spreading information as collecting it—and therefore could be a propaganda tool for the Chinese state.

But that’s all in theory. There doesn’t seem to be any indisputable evidence that TikTok has shared private data on Americans with China. The platform says it stores its data on Americans in the U.S. and Singapore, and is thus out of the Chinese government’s reach. A lawsuit filed in California last year alleges that TikTok lifted private data and shipped them off to servers in China, though what proof the plaintiff has is unclear. (TikTok wouldn’t comment on an ongoing legal case.) When I pressed Hawley’s office on whether it had any hard evidence against ByteDance or TikTok, its case was based mainly on conjecture: The law in China requires that Chinese companies hand data over to the government, the senator stressed in a comment sent to me. From there, they reach the conclusion that TikTok is, at the very least, a potential threat.

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  • +1. It's not a slam dunk, but the Atlantic article you quoted is the best evidence anyone has provided so far. – indigochild Aug 4 at 22:25
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    -1. Atlantic article cannot be an evidence just by definition. In such way, Trump's speeches are also "evidence" - in what way do it critically differs from Atlantic articles? The same tone, the same words. So, @indigochild? – user2501323 Aug 5 at 14:34
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    @user2501323 Has Trump asserted any concrete reasons (beyond the kinds of plausible conjectures discussed above) that TikTok in particular is a security concern? – Brian Z Aug 5 at 14:53
  • I just used it to underline usefullness of that article as a source. Do you use chinese articles to describe situation in HK? I'm sure you don't. So, why to use Atlantic articles to describe that situation? – user2501323 Aug 5 at 15:07
  • @user2501323 Facts are facts... If you think The Atlantic is being unfair or inaccurate here, then show us in what way. – Brian Z Aug 5 at 15:45
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I cannot offer objectives, because they are not publicly known. What I can list are benefits - possible motivations.

  • Serve as a distraction. The current administration has a history of using news to distract from (even) less favorable news.
  • Contribute to a greater strategy of vilifying China as an enemy to rally against.
  • Demonstrate strength and leadership by taking action against the bad guys.
  • Manipulate the market value of a company in return for favors.
  • Reduce the Chinese government's current or future access to an intelligence gathering tool.
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  • -1. This seems reasonable, but I'm not seeing any real evidence that it is true. Can you show some evidence that this is the objective of the TikTok ban? Statements from policymakers? Administrative rules? Expert analysis? – indigochild Aug 4 at 22:23
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    @indigochild Unless I misunderstand them, your questions are answered by the first two sentences of this answer. – Peter Aug 5 at 0:03
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    And there is that users of TikTok have at least twice humiliated Trump: (1) misleading his campaign about how many people would attend his Tulsa rally; & (2) Sarah Cooper lip syncing him. He is given to petty vindictiveness. – llywrch Aug 5 at 20:23
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I can't speak for the motives of the administration, but the idea that TikTok is a national security risk is plausible.

From location data alone, one can infer your political interests (do you go to the gun range? Are you attending BLM protests?), your religious affiliation (do you go to houses of worship?), and your hobbies/interests, and that alone (far from a complete list) is a massive opportunity for a range of abuses - including targeted election interference, through legal channels, where a foreign actor (e.g. China) is able to show personalized ads (or other forms of targeted propaganda) directly to the people most vulnerable to being swayed in any direction.

This is particularly dangerous if the organization is based in China, as it may be subject much more directly to the whims of the CCP (fewer protections against government interference/overreach, like requesting direct access to real time data).

So while I am also opposed to US tech giants (and smaller companies as well) siphoning up this data, I am more opposed to a Chinese app siphoning up US data when the CCP has already demonstrated a propensity for meddling in US politics (with i.e. bot/troll farms).

With basic data analysis techniques (even without modern Machine Learning), this data invaluable to anyone interested in testing/swaying public opinion. Furthermore it is never truly anonymous and even if it were, in aggregate it still represents an enormous accumulation of soft power.

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    All China would have to do is constantly look for PII connected to any of its TikTok data and suddenly they are tracking individuals. Sooner or later, someone in the US with TikTok on their personal smart phone who also has a security clearance would also leak their PII on their phone and potentially the Chinese government could obtain compromising information about someone with a US government security clearance. Even if the odds are low, the plausibility is too great for comfort. Cleared people I know won't even order phones direct from China due to supply chain hack concerns. – Todd Wilcox Aug 3 at 5:56
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    The same with the HUAWEI scandals. And the problem that chinese government officials (border patrol) tried to install a special applications on your phone when you go thorough their security checkpoints when entering. businessinsider.com/… – mishan Aug 3 at 8:51
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    I also have read about risks when children of diplomats download TikTok; they can use it track comings and goings of ambassadors, etc. – Azor Ahai -- he him Aug 3 at 20:17
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    AFAICT Google is doing all this (or at least has the ability to do all this). Why is that not a problem, but Tik-Tok having the same ability is a no-no? – Jyrki Lahtonen Aug 4 at 9:23
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    This answer is nonsense. Nearly all of that data is publicly available about most people on social media platforms, and TikTok is not doing anything Google or Facebook are not already doing. This is just a bunch of speculation and FUD. – Davor Aug 4 at 13:00
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The objectives are very clear: lowering price for buying it. Just watch the dynamics:

  1. Trump declares ban on TikTok
  2. Microsoft "continue discussing" buying US part of TikTok.

In some countries such chain of actions (threating, and then "offering a deal you cannot decline") can be called "raiding".

It surely can be understand:

What is good for the country is good for General Motors—and vice versa

But it definitely isn't an example of "unssen hand of the market".

PS

Also, as some additional motivation, look at the fact, that US tend to be a monopolist and trand-setter in pop-culture (applicable all over the world) for at least last 70 years.

And TikTok is the first fundamentally non-western mass-culture application for young auditory (70% of its users are less than 30 y.o.).

Maybe that culture-monopoly-break can be additional motivation for striking TikTok in such rude way.

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    While that is a possible motive, there is little proof for it. Then again, there is little proof for the other answers here as well. – Morfildur Aug 4 at 6:14
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    And now Trump is asking for a cut: bbc.co.uk/news/business-53633315 – Caleth Aug 4 at 15:37
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    -1. This seems reasonable, but I'm not seeing any real evidence that it is true. Can you show some evidence that this is the objective of the TikTok ban? Statements from policymakers? Administrative rules? Expert analysis? – indigochild Aug 4 at 22:22
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    +1. Agreed. When MS buys TikTok, there won't be any noise and no banning. Reportedly they (US) have given a deadline. I saw an article today on China Daily regarding this. – Severus Snape Aug 5 at 8:05
  • This is unlikely to be the case, despite the fact that China has done similar things to U.S. brands, exerting pressure until a sale, or local franchise is made (e.g. McDonalds selling their rights in China due to continued negative media pressure). Not to mention the fact that in most industries, e.g. motor vehicle production, joint ventures with a local partner are required. Unless you provide a clear reason why Trump himself, or his friends would profit from it, it doesn't make very much sense: the U.S. has been pressing for decades for LESS interference of this kind, not more. – makelemonade Aug 9 at 18:53
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There are multiple objectives, some have already been elaborated in other answers:

  1. TikTok does pose some challenges to U.S. national security, through the collection of user data.
  2. At the moment, strong action against China is likely to increase President Trump's chance of winning the 2020 election.
  3. I believe this is the most important point: China has extreme restrictions on foreign involvement in their country. That includes investment in sensitive industries, blocks on foreign websites, capital controls, and many other areas. When China first joined the WTO in 2001, it was understood that although initially the economy would remain somewhat closed, over time it would open up. This has happened slower than many in the West would have hoped. At the same time, China has made great strides in acquiring overseas assets and influence, particularly since it adopted the One Belt One Road strategy in 2013. Taken individually, none of these policies give China an huge advantage, but collectively they now add up to a considerable asymmetry in power. The telecommunications industry particularly important, since it can be used for both soft and hard power. Imagine, for example that it was not TikTok, but Facebook that was controlled by China. That would allow them to filter news to more than half of American adults. Given that foreign ownership of Chinese media is practically zero, this would be a huge propaganda asset. It may not be used that way initially - they may wait for a specific event, such as a military conflict, or a trade war before leveraging their influence. We have already seen TikTok impose bans on politically sensitive posts, even if they were later revoked. There is even evidence that users have already began to alter their content to appear pro-China, in the hope that it will increase their search rankings.

Without wanting to sound trite: the battles of the future will be fought in cyberspace, and will be for hearts and minds, rather than territory. China has been acutely aware of this for years, and the West is starting to pay more attention, currently following President Trump's lead, but these same issues have been recognized at least at a conceptual level by the Obama administration and many other nations.

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