LW ROUNDTABLE: Will the U.S. Senate keep citizens safe, vote to force China to divest TikTok?

By Byron V. Acohido

Congressional bi-partisanship these day seems nigh impossible.

Related: Rising tensions spell need for tighter cybersecurity

Yet by a resounding vote of 352-65, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would ban TikTok unless its China-based owner, ByteDance Ltd., relinquishes its stake.

President Biden has said he will sign the bill into law, so its fate is now in the hands of the U.S. Senate.

I fervently hope the U.S. Senate does not torpedo this long overdue proactive step to protect its citizens and start shoring up America’s global stature.

Weaponizing social media

How did we get here? A big part of the problem is a poorly informed general populace. Mainstream news media gravitates to chasing the political antics of the moment. This tends to diffuse sober analysis of the countless examples of Russia, in particular, weaponizing social media to spread falsehoods, interfere in elections, target infrastructure and even radicalize youth.

Finally, Congress appears to be heeding lessons available to be learned since the hacking John Podesta’s email account – not to mention all of the havoc Russia was able to foment in our 2016 elections, attempting to interfere in 39 states.

One of the most chilling examples of Russia methodically continuing to leverage social media as a strategic weapon has attracted barely any news coverage at all. In 2011, Russia launched a social media site called iFunny aimed at disaffected young men.  iFunny has since been downloaded some 70 million times and functions as a tool for neo-Nazi terror groups to recruit Gen-Z males.

In the weeks leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, authorities in North Carolina arrested a 19-year-old male with a van full of guns and explosives and charged him with plotting to assassinate then Democratic presidential nominee Biden. Federal court documents describe how the teenager had posted memes on iFunny questioning whether he should kill Biden, and also run numerous Google searches for things like Biden’s home address and information about automatic weapons and night-vision goggles.

During this same time frame, investigators at Pixalate, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based supplier of fraud management technology, documented how iFunny distributed data-stealing malware specifically targeting smartphone users in the key swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

50 upcoming elections

It’s logical to assume China has been and will continue to borrow from Russia’s social media manipulation playbook.

Sanchez

“If the amount of data harvested by TikTok is similar to all other social media platforms then there is a bigger problem to deal with as misinformation and deepfakes are threats that are quickly growing,” observes Antonio Sanchez, principal evangelist at Fortra. “This could impact election outcomes and there are 50 countries having elections this year.”

Senate detractors insist that this bill – or any legislation that puts any hint of rails around social media — will stifle innovation and impinge on civil liberties. Brandon Hart, CTO at Everything Blockchain, argues that this divest-or-be-banned mandate, aimed squarely at China  “could inadvertently infringe upon (civil) liberties, potentially eroding public trust and individual autonomy.”

Safety first

Hart advocates more laisse faire intervention.

Hart

“A more fitting approach would be for the government to focus on identifying and elucidating potential threats, thereby empowering citizens to make informed decisions regarding the technologies they use,” Hart says.

Empowering citizens is all fine and well, but it is also true that the fundamental role of government is to keep the citizenry safe.

Clemens

“A nation-state must protect its citizens and today, protection extends beyond bodily or physical harm,” observes Daniel Clemens, CEO of ShadowDragon. “ The protection of a democratic government’s citizens may mean the protection of citizens’ data, which now justifies the intervention of nations.”

Clemens opines that forcing China to divest would be a “great step in countering the influence and outcomes from TikTok against a free society that does not need to be influenced by a regime that ignores basic human rights.”

Clemens further notes that if China is made to divest, it still stands to strike a windfall in profits off the sale of TikTok. “China will continue to break international laws and push the boundaries on digital surveillance to advance its interests,” he says. “There’s no change there.”

Careful calibrations

Proponents also point out that this bill has been carefully calibrated to stop a specific, tangible threat: the likelihood that China will use TikTok strategically against the U.S.

Strand

“Consideration needs to be given to determine what kind of data has and is being collected, and to what extent,” says Chris Strand, vice president, risk and compliance, at Cybersixgill. “Even in the event that no personal data is collected, there can still be reason to take action to prevent the abuse of data that relates to behaviors, emotions, and preferences, that can lead to nefarious outcomes, identity theft, and military operational intelligence.”

Clemens also adds that the West’s private sector has been moving away from China for years due to China’s rampant intellectual property thievery and censorship. “This sets an important precedent that signifies the US Government’s willingness to step in when consumer data is threatened,” Clemens says. “I hope to see more material regulatory actions against China in the future.”

Smith

Here’s what Gregg Smith, CEO of Technology Advancement Center, adds to this discussion: “Nation states like the U.S. should absolutely attempt to deter the abuse of domestic user data collected legally by adversary governments. In the case of TikTok, a U.S. adversary is collecting vast amounts of data on users likes, dislikes, patterns of behavior, etc.

“All of this information when put together like a puzzle leaves our nation and our individual citizens exposed. This type of intelligence collection tactic is all part of the ‘long game’ being played by the Chinese government to prepare for opportunities to weaken our nation.”

Agreed. I’d note that the concerted efforts by Chinese officials to downplay the significance of this bill is a sure sign that it has teeth – and, indeed, would deter America’s rivals from wielding social media as a strategic weapon against the U.S.

There’s no baseless paranoia here. Quite the opposite. The imperative for legislative intervention couldn’t be any clearer. We’re deep into a digital Pearl Harbor. Which way will the U.S. Senate pivot? We’ll soon find out. I’ll keep watch and keep reporting.

Acohido

Pulitzer Prize-winning business journalist Byron V. Acohido is dedicated to fostering public awareness about how to make the Internet as private and secure as it ought to be.


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