A TikTok ban isn't about privacy, it's about politics

Android figures
(Image credit: Jerry Hildenbrand / Android Central)

The TikTok app is probably going to be banned in a handful of Western countries. In the U.S. it's already in motion and all that's left is for the right politician to sign the right piece of paper and it's out of here. Someone smart will find a workaround, but for the average user there will be no way to get the app and it's not going to work if you do find it.

This was a dumb idea when former President Trump wanted to do it, and it remains a dumb idea under the current administration. This silly idea is only being forwarded because of where TikTok originates, not what it is doing. I'm talking about China, of course. 

I'm not a fan of TikTok and actually think the banning of it on government-owned or administered devices is a smart move. There is zero doubt that the app collects far more user data than necessary and has the capability of monitoring everything you type into your keyboard through its browser. I'm not a security researcher but I don't need to be one because those that are — even the ones who enjoy TikTok — tell me it's a privacy nightmare. Having it installed on a phone where your work email is government business is not a good thing.

The big problem here is that there are a lot of other apps that are just as bad (maybe even worse) when it comes to consumer privacy violations. We know about the few times companies took it too far and got caught, as Facebook (now Meta) and Twitter were both caught doing things their own privacy policies said would never happen. So why ban TikTok and not Twitter? 

Twitter Logo OnePlus 6.

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The answer is exactly what you think it is: China. They're not even trying to hide it, as one of the things being suggested to thwart a nationwide ban is ByteDance selling TikTok to a Western company, just like the last time someone wanted to ban TikTok. They're basically saying take China out of the equation and we're fine with all the privacy violations. Why?

I'm tired of ending paragraphs with a question so let's answer it — people and governments are afraid of China. Specifically when it comes to surveillance and intel gathering. In today's political climate, not trusting China with anything for any reason is the norm.

I'll make no judgment here because like almost everyone else, I don't have all the details and am not privy to everything that's going on. I agree that having an adversarial government knowing state secrets is a very bad thing and having that same government spying on regular citizens is just as bad for different reasons. Past that, I don't know what China (or Germany, or Canada, or the United States) is doing when it comes to "real spy shit" but I'll assume it's not good.

I also don't pretend to know the ramifications of the Chinese government knowing what we watch on TikTok but I'd rather they didn't. I'd rather no government knew. One thing I do agree with is that access to whatever algorithm is being used to promote content could be used for political purposes. Fill every user's timeline with pro-Trump or pro-Biden or pro-whoever video content and it will sway some potential voters. Not good when disinformation is being pushed, as was the case for Facebook.

Android 13's granular media permissions

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There is one thing I do know though — the real fix is to strengthen consumer privacy laws. The U.S. government objects to China having access to American users' data and a content-neutral privacy law addresses this. It protects American user data from the likes of Meta, Google, Amazon, and every other company. It also helps in ways most people don't realize when it comes to actual governments getting your data.

The Chinese government has access to user data on demand. This is different from other countries like the U.S. where warrants are required. If the Chinese government tells Google or Apple they want all the data about a user in China they get it and there is no fighting back in a courtroom. Unfortunately, the U.S. government has workarounds and takes what it wants, too.

Review Samsung Privacy Policy on Galaxy S21 FE when setting up Galaxy Watch 5

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One of the ways is through data brokers. These companies partner with app developers or ad providers to collect personal data and then sell it off to the highest bidder, which often includes state and federal government agencies. Another way to get around that pesky Fourth Amendment is having other governments like the U.K. do the searching and seizing then passing along anything of interest under the guise of a global war on terror. Yes, that is a real thing that can happen. I'm not even going to wade into the Patriot Act but you see where I'm going.

Maybe this is why the U.S. isn't pushing for stronger privacy protections. It makes you think, doesn't it?

In any case, banning TikTok is just a Band-Aid that will piss off a lot of people. It's not even a very good Band-Aid and this is coming from someone who thinks the app is every bit as bad as the "government" says it is.

If you really want to stop the "bad guys" from having access to a treasure trove of user data make tougher laws to protect it and impose harsh penalties when companies break them. No data collected means no data shared with a communist Chinese boogeyman.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.