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Is the US about to ban TikTok?

No, but the discussions that are being made are worrisome

Is the US about to ban TikTok? No, but the discussions that are being made are worrisome

In the past few days, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, specifically Commissioner Brandon Carr sent a letter to Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, the CEOs of Apple and Alphabet, asking them to remove TikTok from the Apple and Google app stores due to a number of data security concerns about the app. According to Carr «TikTok is not what it appears to be on the surface. It is not just an app for sharing funny videos or memes. That's the sheep's clothing. At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data. Indeed, TikTok collects everything from search and browsing histories to keystroke patterns and biometric identifiers, including faceprints—which researchers have said might be used in unrelated facial recognition technology—and voiceprints. It collects location data as well as draft messages and metadata, plus it has collected the text, images, and videos that are stored on a device's clipboard. The list of personal and sensitive data it collects goes on from there. This should come as no surprise, however. Within its own borders, the PRC has developed some of the most invasive and omnipresent surveillance capabilities in the world to maintain authoritarian control». As in the past, when former President Trump called for a total ban on the app, the Chinese government is responsible for this surveillance regime. To the accusations already made against it by the United States, TikTok's company, ByteDance, had responded by redirecting data flows into the servers of the American Oracle (the so-called Project Texas that represents the single pivot around which the app's survival in the United States revolves) even though, according again to Carr's statement, that data would be inaccessible. 

Carr's request is just the tip of the iceberg of a much more complicated issue, which takes its starting point from a Buzzfeed report from a few weeks ago in which we read, through a series of leaked records, that «engineers in China had access to US data between September 2021 and January 2022, at the very least». Some of these records speak of a mysterious and anonymous Master Admin in Beijing who possesses universal access to the app's data. The issue immediately escalated into a controversy over President Biden, who was accused of not continuing the hard line inaugurated by his predecessor against China, without following up on previous executive orders that would have forced ByteDance to divest from the U.S.-based TikTok - which according to the The New York Times never happened. Beyond political speculation, however, as Highsnobiety itself pointed out in a recent article, the case again raises the often ignored issue of the buying and selling of user data by tech companies, which, however, is not just about TikTok. Many apps, and especially popular social media outlets, have been collecting, buying, and selling data for a long time, and even the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the consulting firm collected the data of 87 million Facebook accounts to use for political propaganda purposes in 2018, without suffering any form of criminal consequence other than the very large $5 billion fine imposed on Facebook. 

As The Washington Post says, Carr's letter has more media resonance than political weight since the commissioner «can’t single-handedly compel them to ban TikTok, since the FCC doesn’t regulate app stores». And given that Apple and Alphabet representatives have not commented, it is difficult, in the absence of further political pressure, for the request in the letter to become a reality. So, for the time being, the app's operation should not be affected-although the concerns raised by Carr's letter remain real. What is clear is that any ban on the app could have serious economic and political repercussions - and it is not out of the question that the U.S. social media industry would advocate it, to rid itself of a dangerous rival. The only fallout one can hope for, however, given the current state of affairs, is a more transparent, trustworthy and responsible handling of user data by tech companies-after all, it is known that when a service such as social media is free, it is the users and their data that are being offered for sale.