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ALEXANDER FLEISS: TikTok — Harmless Distraction, Or National Security Risk?

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Alexander Fleiss Contributor
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TikTok is a popular social media app that allows users to create and share short videos. However, many Americans now fear this platform!

Originally developed by a Chinese tech company called ByteDance, TikTok was launched in September of 2016 under the name Douyin, or “vibrant sound” in Chinese.

Initially only available in China, the app launched internationally in 2017 under the name TikTok.

TikTok quickly gained popularity around the world, especially among younger audiences. By October 2018, the app amassed over 100 million downloads by US citizens alone. 

The app’s success can be attributed to its user-friendly interface, innovative features, and an algorithm that suggests high quality content based on user behavior. However, the app has been the subject of controversy, with some critics raising concerns about privacy, censorship, and the potential use of data for nefarious concerns. 

AI legend and NYU Professor Gary Marcus told us, “AI safety isn’t a right or a left issue. New, poorly controlled AI that is unreliable yet can easily fool people may set off a wave of cybercrime, and lead to an atmosphere of distrust that will undermine the political process for everybody. It’s in everybody’s interest that we move to a safer, better controlled form of AI.”

In addition, former CIA Analyst Buck Sexton claims; “Tik Tok isn’t as scary as the uniparty pretends to think it is. But Congress would rather shout about Tik Tok spying than actually deal with Google and Facebook’s election manipulation and subversion of democracy over the last decade or so.”

There have been concerns and allegations that the Chinese government uses TikTok to spy on American users and collect their data, given that the app is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. However, TikTok has repeatedly denied any such claims.

We spoke with the Founding Director of USC’s Computer Science Games Program, Mike Zyda. Professor Zyda doubts the data has much use: “The large user audience of TikTok and the massive amount of data collected makes the prospect of going through that data to determine meaningful information about the user a daunting task and a very large computational effort.”

However, Johns Hopkins Professor Jim Liew feels, “Tik Tok should be completely outlawed. It’s too addictive with thousands of highly skilled data scientists using their ML superpowers for evil. It’s such a waste of time and brain power.”

In August 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would have banned TikTok in the United States unless it was sold to a U.S. company within 45 days. 

The order cited national security concerns and accused TikTok of collecting data on American users that could be shared with China’s government. TikTok denied these claims and challenged the ban in court, arguing that it was unconstitutional and that it had taken steps to protect user data. (RELATED: GORDON CHANG: Is A TikTok Ban Constitutional?)

In September 2020, a tentative deal was reached between TikTok, ByteDance, Oracle, and Walmart, which would have allowed American companies to take a significant stake in a new company called TikTok Global. However, the deal was put on hold after President Joe Biden took office, and today the situation remains unresolved.

In TikTok’s defense, its transparency and willingness to cooperate after data breaches demonstrates a strong commitment to user privacy.

American action against TikTok puts into question the future of other Chinese businesses such as e-commerce platform Temu. Professor Zyda adds on this point: “Once we go down that road, we then will have calls for the blocking of other Chinese apps, such as WeChat, that have a more pervasive Chinese Government monitoring. Perhaps a trans global data war is the inevitable outcome if we do.”

From a high-level strategic perspective, if the U.S. were to ban TikTok and use that precedent to inhibit other Chinese companies’ entry into the US market, it would give the U.S. an advantage in economic competition.

Lastly, we asked Duke Cybersecurity Director and Professor Jimmie Lenz if the Chinese government could spy on the US through the social media platform. “I absolutely believe that’s possible, if nothing else a great source of geospatial data, but anything that has access to your camera and microphone is a credible spying device.”

One thing Professor Lenz said about TikTok that we definitely agree with is as follows:“After all it’s a little more than a way to waste time, right?”

Alexander Fleiss is the CEO of think tank Rebellion Research and has taught Artificial Intelligence at Cornell, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, NYU, Amherst College, MIT and has 18 academic research publications.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.

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