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Trump's dangerous US TikTok ban

President Trump's U.S. TikTok ban over national security is resting on a vague foundation. The concern can be applied to multiple industries and products.

As a baby boomer, I'm not TikTok's target audience. I downloaded the app for a work project some time ago. Its short little video posts bubbled with creativity, humor, candor and intelligence. And then President Donald Trump decided to ban it in the name of national security.

Trump's U.S. TikTok and WeChat bans are broad and dangerous. If Trump can use "national security" reasons for a technology ban, other products and industries may follow.

The executive order bans downloads or updates of the two apps after 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 20. The Chinese owner ByteDance Ltd. and potential U.S. partner Oracle Corp. may find a way to preempt a TikTok ban if they can separate it from China's control. The U.S. is allowing U.S.-based web hosting through Nov. 12 for the apps.

(Update: This weekend, two developments put on hold download bans for TikTok and WeChat. On Saturday, the Trump administration lifted its download ban to consider a new ownership proposal for TikTok involving Oracle and Walmart. This plan creates a U.S. entity, TikTok Global, with Oracle and Walmart having part ownership. Secondly, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued an injunction blocking the Trump administration’s order to ban WeChat downloads.)

This is the second technology to be banned by the Trump administration. In May of 2019, he banned China-based Huawei's 5G technology through a broad executive order. But it's the TikTok ban that will cause the most grief.

Trump's executive order argues that TikTok collects "vast swaths of information." This includes location data, browsing and search history and other personal data. It says TikTok can act as a platform for disinformation, conspiracy theories and the like. It warns that TikTok can "track the locations of Federal employees and contractors."

A teardown of Trump's U.S. TikTok ban 

Let's break Trump's concerns down, starting with the location of employees. 

LinkedIn's Talent Insights platform can list names of software engineers, for instance, firm by firm, city by city. Analytics provide insights to a competitor's growth in hiring and attrition.

Recruiters use social media posts to find potential hiring targets. In our pre-pandemic world, top sales performers gather at a resort for a high-level meeting. These employees post social media photos, sometimes geotagged, about their location. Recruiters use these platforms to assemble a list of recruiting targets.

Trump sees TikTok as a unique threat to federal employees and contractors. But federal workers have security clearances and have to follow social media rules. The government has leverage. Loss of security clearance can bring about the loss of a job. 

Trump worries some could use TikTok to spread disinformation and conspiracy theories. That happens on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit every single day. As Russia demonstrates, China doesn't need to own the platform. FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers Thursday that Russia is spreading election disinformation. 

China will use TikTok data to collect browsing history, Trump warns. But this data is already for sale and collected on websites and third-party apps loaded on your cell phone.

Trump's ban won't work. Technology roadblocks to TikTok will be circumvented one way or another. VPNs, which can disguise a user's location, may be an alternative route to download the app.

A warning of history

Masha Gessen, in the recently published Surviving Autocracy, argues that authoritarian governments use a "crisis" to create a "special exception" to assert more authority. Hitler did it after the Reichstag fire. President Woodrow Wilson tried to clamp down on free speech during World War I with the Sedition Act of 1918. The reasons for these actions were broad and vague -- the essence of Trump's executive order on TikTok. 

Trump cites "the threat posed" by China as the "special exception" to prevent the use of TikTok. The administration's argument can apply to almost anything.

U.S. and global firms rely on China to develop software and firmware. Consumers are filling their homes with connected devices manufactured completely in China. Don't these devices and the firmware pose a national security threat as well?

China's goal is to lead in advanced technology, especially in AI. For sure, China's IP theft concerns are very real, but it is not the biggest problem. 

There is a very good possibility China has just passed the U.S. in R&D spending, according to National Science Foundation studies. The U.S. investment in R&D, as a percentage of GDP, has been declining for years, weakening our basic science research. That ought to be our biggest problem. TikTok and WeChat are a distraction.

The U.S. TikTok ban doesn't improve our national security. But if the administration's effort survives a court challenge, Trump may be emboldened to ban other foreign-born technologies as well.

Next Steps

TikTok data collection practices, ties to China lead to bans

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