Security threat?

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

The country’s ambassador to the US, Jose Manuel Romualdez, said that based on intel he has received, “almost all” Philippine institutions have been “severely compromised” and are vulnerable to cyber warfare.

Because of his position, it can be presumed that Babes Romualdez’s intel was obtained in Washington.

Perhaps the same intel has reached our National Security Council. This month, NSC Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya raised the possibility of banning the use of TikTok on devices used by government security personnel. The proposal has been supported by Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro.

But whoa… users will surely ask, how is TikTok a national security risk?

There’s an ongoing debate over this, and certain governments aren’t waiting for a definitive resolution. If the ban pushes through, the Philippines will be following the example of the US and several other countries that have imposed such prohibitions, on concerns that TikTok has Chinese links that can allow Beijing to demand information from the company about its users.

The head of public policy for TikTok Philippines, Toff Rada, met with me last Monday to reiterate several points that he explained to me last year when I was just emerging from my COVID cocoon.

Toff will be giving the same explanations to Malaya in a meeting scheduled this afternoon. It would be interesting to see whether the NSC will buy the explanation.

The first point Toff raised is that ByteDance Ltd., the subject of a national security review and congressional investigation in the US since 2019 for Chinese links, is not a Chinese-owned company.

Check out the website, Toff says, for the majority shareholders. While the company was founded by Chinese entrepreneurs, today it’s 60 percent owned by global institutional investors such as Carlyle Group. Twenty percent is owned by ByteDance employees worldwide. The remaining 20 percent is owned by the founder, who TikTok says is a private person who is not part of any government entity. Chairman and CEO Rubo Liang is based in Singapore. The guy who oversees TikTok decision-making is a third-generation Singaporean based in the city-state, Shou Chew.

Toff says ByteDance was incorporated in the Cayman Islands, and its base is Singapore. Its data centers are in Singapore, Malaysia and the US.

ByteDance does have a subsidiary based in Beijing, Douyin Information Service Co., Ltd., to handle its operations in China. As required under Chinese laws, an entity affiliated with the Chinese government owns one percent of Douyin.

In case Beijing wields the law that requires all Chinese citizens and companies doing business in China to provide data upon demand by the government, and obtains information from Douyin, Toff says there’s a firewall that blocks the subsidiary from accessing data from TikTok users outside China.

In the US, while personal use of TikTok on privately owned devices is still allowed, there are moves in certain states and elsewhere to completely ban TikTok. This can be a problem especially as TikTok ventures into commercial services.

*      *      *

I gave Toff my non-techie take on his explanations.

One is that it would help to dispel perceptions of Chinese ownership if TikTok has an undeniably non-Chinese owner’s global face, like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook / Meta, Elon Musk of X / Twitter and Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google.

Being incorporated in the Cayman Islands – known as a global tax haven – may also not improve perceptions of ownership secrecy. Toff stresses that incorporating in the Caymans is pretty common in global business.

As for that firewall, my immediate low-tech reaction was, how many supposedly secure firewalls have been breached all over the world? Breaching should be so much easier between a mother company and its subsidiary.

That a TikTok subsidiary is operating in China already says a lot, if you consider that Facebook, Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are banned in China. If Beijing felt threatened by the TikTok subsidiary, it would have also banned it and simply developed a homegrown version of the platform, as it did with its own versions of the banned services.

Toff points out that TikTok cannot even run to any Chinese embassy for help with a corporate problem – proof that it is not state-owned.

But Toff acknowledges the difficulty of overcoming the perception that TikTok is owned or controlled by the Chinese government. This might not be a problem in Singapore and Malaysia. But in our country whose reefs, shoals and sovereign waters are being grabbed by China, even perceptions carry a lot of weight.

*      *      *

While the debate continues over the security risks posed by TikTok, whether real or imagined, there is little debate on the use of the platform for the spread of disinformation and malicious content.

It is, of course, a problem that pervades all digital platforms. Like other social media giants, Toff says TikTok has content monitors all over the world who work to weed out such content.

In the campaign for the 2022 elections, Meta removed hundreds of FB accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior – used by troll farms, scammers, historical revisionists and other forms of cyber lowlifes.

Toff says it’s not that tough to detect coordinated inauthentic behavior. But those who engage in it find ways of circumventing content monitors. The new tack is to make the messaging as uncoordinated as the financiers’ budget will allow it.

There is also the increasing use of influencers to push disinformation.

TikTok, like Meta, has partnered with mainstream media organizations, the academe and other sectors for fact-checking and promotion of reliable and non-malicious content.

Obviously, it’s a Herculean task that Toff stresses is best accomplished with the help of vigilant netizens. It remains to be seen how a possible ban on government use of TikTok will affect this effort.

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