Is TikTok really an elaborate façade for Chinese spyware?

Cyber-experts are claiming that 2020’s number one app is a shady front for Chinese spyware and mass censorship. 

Suggestions that ByteDance’s ‘innocuous’ short-bite video app TikTok has all the makings of a totalitarian plot hatched by the Chinese government are looking more plausible by the day. Suffice to say, people are freaked.

Months of bad publicity 

Two months ago, an anonymous software engineer with 15 years of experience claimed he had successfully reverse-engineered TikTok. Within its inner workings, he pointed to all the makings of a comprehensive data collection service, and not a conventional social networking site. 

Having supposedly used his hacking nouse to previously break into the mainframe of all the chief social media platforms, the self-confessed ‘bug hunter’ alleged that weighing Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Reddit against TikTok in terms of data recorded on its users is ‘like comparing a cup of water to the ocean’. 

In a detailed breakdown on Reddit, the elusive Bangorlol asserted that TikTok’s internal systems are recording everything; from the apps we download/delete, our phone hardware IDs, disk spaces, and cpu types, to our local IPs, WiFi access points, and live GPS pings. Pointing toward the possibility a cyberespionage operation – the use of computer networks to access confidential information typically held by government agencies – Bangorlol implored users not to use TikTok any longer. 

Fast forward to June, and these claims began to snowball into the mainstream media. A beta version of Apple’s iOS 14 discovered that TikTok had been secretly accessing users’ clipboards (internal storage of copied links and messages), and the backlash was almost instantaneous online. Despite TikTok’s rebuttal that this was an inadvertent technical bug caused by an anti-spam filter, the damage was done. The boy had cried wolf too many times.

A colossal blow for ByteDance 

With military tensions already bubbling over between India and China regarding trade precedence at the Himalayan border, Apple’s discovery proved to be the final straw for government officials in New Delhi; who deemed TikTok a possible counterintelligence threat from China 

On Monday (29th), a nationwide ban on TikTok and 58 other Chinese apps was announced with all entries being immediately pulled from the App Store and Play Store in India, dealing a painful blow to Beijing-based parent ByteDance. Just for context, India makes up 610 million of the platform’s downloads – compared to 165 million in the US. With such a sizeable outage, you’d expect TikTok’s astronomical engagement levels and revenue will take a serious hit in the months ahead. 

If that wasn’t enough to keep ByteDance seniors awake at night, the 2020 resurgence of hacktivist outfit Anonymous announced on Twitter just days ago that it had named TikTok its latest target. Citing the Bangorlol leaks and bringing them back into widespread circulation, Anonymous lamented TikTok for apparently masquerading as its collective on the platform using a fake account, vowing: ‘We do not appreciate false flag impersonations. There will be consequences.

China’s surveillance state 

It would be a fair statement to suggest that people are more apathetic today than ever before when it comes to sharing their data with social networking sites. Our timelines are constantly awash with targeted ads and content related to our browsing activity, the general consensus being ‘what’s the problem if I’ve nothing to hide?’ 

However, when a country infamous for using censorship to control and persecute its own people starts prying into our backyards with no prior say so, people are bound to take exception. 

Since 2019, more than 60 online restrictions have been imposed by the Government of China and enforced by provincial branches of state-owned companies. Through means of AI algorithms and sometimes affiliate teams of thousands, citizens’ browsing activity and even private messages are legally monitored and sometimes blocked. 

China has been consistently closing avenues in that respect for years now. Through ousting Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook, it has created a vacuum for homegrown upstarts to flourish while the Communist Party rules online narratives with an iron fist. There’s a reason China houses the largest number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world right now. 

Before recent developments, TikTok had previously come under fire for banning videos pertaining to the heinous treatment of China’s Uyghur Muslims in ‘re-education centers’, and after years of public concern, Huawei telecom handsets have today been banned in the US. Supposed ties to the Chinese military have been found to be far more problematic than originally thought, with Chinese law demanding that Huawei cooperate directly with government intelligence services, according to FCC chairman Ajit Pai.

In short, human rights aren’t high on the agenda for China, and the Communist Party is all but set to usher in an Orwellian future for the nation. But what is becoming increasingly clear, is that with each step towards this goal, the further distanced it will become from Western democracies and their industries.  

 

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