Is TikTok really used for cyber spying?

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

TikTok went global in 2018. At once, security experts suspected it of being a Chinese cyber-espionage tool. Reasons against the micro-vlogging and e-commerce platform:

• It collects, uses and discloses users’ personal information. Substantial data are gathered without permission from other apps in the device. It draws sensitive data even when users don’t save or share content.

• TikTok developer ByteDance and founder Zhang Yiming are Chinese. In 2017 the China Communist Party enacted a National Intelligence Law. It compels Chinese companies and citizens to support domestic and overseas espionage and keep secret their participation.

Due to TikTok’s cyber-sabotage potential, several governments banned it from their devices. Foremost were China’s security disputants America, Canada, Britain, European Union, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. India forbade TikTok even in private mobiles and tablets.

ByteDance protested, citing company changes. It had opened to foreign shareholders. CEO Zhang had acquired US citizenship and emigrated to California’s Silicon Valley.

Its engineers were cooperating with concerned states to resolve security and privacy issues.

China’s foes were unconvinced. ByteDance and most overseas employees remain Chinese, all subject to CCP’s intelligence apparatus.

Tiktok’s overseas servers interconnect with those in China. Backdoors may exist surreptitiously to access unauthorized data, and malware planted to subvert.

The Philippines disagreed with security allies then. President Rodrigo Duterte professed love for Chinese President Xi Jinping. He allowed a new telco to set up cell sites inside military camps – a potential eavesdropping risk.

TikTok became a sensation not only among civilian government employees. Uniformed, intelligence and foreign affairs personnel also installed it in state-issued gadgets. Short videos were entertaining.

The National Security Agency now wants to prohibit TikTok from official devices due to disinformation capability. Reuters reports that Filipinos are among the top ten nationals who imbibe news mostly from TikTok.

NSA notices pro-China news and views – as China escalates aggression in the West Philippine Sea. “Disinformation operations, psychological warfare and other stuff are being done,” NSA Assistant Director Jonathan Malaya says.

He adds: “Banning wouldn’t be for those in the civilian sector, but for security, armed forces, uniformed personnel, intelligence.”

China is becoming more and more a surveillance state. It spies on its own citizens via millions of CCTVs in street corners. With artificial intelligence, each camera can detect 60 faces simultaneously, analyze up to 100 faces per second and store 1.8 billion images.

Abroad, CCP’s International Department has “influence fronts.” These are spying units disguised as Chinese citizens’ help centers or embedded in academe, industry, political and civic groups.

The US suffered 224 Chinese spying from 2001 to 2022. Forty-nine percent directly involved Chinese military or government employees, 41 percent were private Chinese citizens and ten percent were compromised US citizens.

Purposes overlapped: 46 percent of incidents were cyber espionage, 29 percent military technology theft, 54 percent commercial technology theft and 17 percent on politicians. That’s despite a 2015 deal by president Barack Obama with Xi to lessen snooping.

Europe detected six Chinese military fronts for cyber spying and hacking. The “advanced persistent threats” were seen “conducting malicious cyber activities against business and governments in the Union,” said the EU Agency for Cybersecurity and the Computer Emergency Response Team.

Upon special extension as CCP chairman in October 2022, Xi imposed a new rule. All Chinese companies are to have “party cells.” To avoid conflict, CEOs and proprietors swear allegiance to and parrot Xi’s quotations.

Within weeks, Nikkei Asia reported, more than two-thirds of Chinese firms traded in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange had articles of association with CCP.

TikTok’s parent firm cannot escape CCP assumption. But NSA must take care to speak of banning not for content but technological security. NSA can acquire info from intelligence partners Five Eyes and EU.

Information-Communication Technology Sec. Ivan Uy resists banning for content: “There has to be basis. [NSA] can have TikTok explain to us their technology … Not only [TikTok but] all social media are abused for disinformation and fake news.”

TikTok Philippines disavows CCP ties. “Shareholders own private companies like ByteDance,” Policy Officer Toff Rada asserts. “Who are they? Sixty percent are foreign global institutions like General Atlantic, Softbank, KKR; private investment companies, some Americans. Companies are run by boards of directors.

“None of ByteDance’s directors are with the Chinese government. Three are American. We have said again and again that TikTok is not in China. Parent company ByteDance has only one subsidiary operating there …  In all these years, no one has produced even a shred of evidence that we have leaked data to the Chinese government.”

But that’s precisely because of the secrecy requirement of China’s intelligence law, a defense official counters: “Admit your cyber-snooping participation, and you and your family will go to prison.”

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8 to 10 a.m., dwIZ (882-AM).

Follow me on Facebook: https://tinyurl.com/Jarius-Bondoc

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