The U.S. Congress-TikTok data privacy dance on a loop
It is hard to imagine an escape for the U.S. government and TikTok executives as they circle each other in what probably is an unresolvable spiral of distrust.
The video social media is owned by the content platform creator Beijing ByteDance Technology, which one year ago, sold a portion of the company to the autocratic and surveillance-obsessed Chinese government. The government even got a seat on the board.
Those facts offer no obvious reason to trust TikTok.
First, it has been fashionable since the 2000s to say what data dealers of every stripe wish were true: Privacy is not a right. It is not even logical to expect it. If those in the industry and law enforcement think privacy is a joke, it is difficult to take seriously claims that Beijing, sitting on TikTok’s board, is honoring anyone’s right to privacy.
China’s government has not hidden its national forest of facial recognition cameras. Humans and algorithms censor all domestic and most foreign online media. Between the hardware infrastructure and the AI algorithms, China has filled concentration camps that look like faceless corporate campuses behind barbed wire.
And social media as a global industry is assumed to be misusing members’ biometric and biographic data in any number of ways. And the biggest players essentially have created scraping grounds that entrepreneurs exploit for biometric data.
TikTok executives typically respond to government accusations, as they did after the House CAO’s warning that House members should not use the “high-risk” service, according to reporting, by politics-focused publication Politico. The advisory is here.
In their rebuttal to the House administrator, the executives say that all U.S. subscriber data is stored in the United States or in Singapore, both of which reportedly are becoming backup centers.
Plus, the executives say, all “U.S. user traffic is being routed to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure” in the United States, according to TikTok. Migrating backup data from its own data centers remains a work in progress.
In fact, Oracle recently started examining algorithms and moderation models by TikTok, according to news service Axios. The article says Oracle staff can regularly vet and validate content recommendation and moderation models.
No facial or voice recognition software is used to identify people, and face and voice data is not collected, at least for identification purposes, the executives maintain. (That is being contested in court.) They also reportedly do not harvest data from subscribers’ devices.
TikTok just needs people in government to trust them.