China is Destroying Our Future Leaders

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We live in an era where the definition of what we consider “private” is changing. Social media connects our past and present friends to us in unprecedented ways and – banking on nostalgia – these platforms compel us to share deeply personal information with our friends (and, of course, the data mining system). Add to this that we are raising a generation that have grown up with both this interconnectivity to others online and cameras pointed at them to the point where it’s simply an everyday part of life. We start to paint a picture of understanding that the society we have fostered is unlike anything the history of the world has ever seen. 

When we’re applying the concepts of adversarial diplomacy to this new era, it’s the one with the most information who has the strategic advantage. While this has been true for the entire existence of diplomacy, how we are gathering this information against opponents (and how they gather it on us) is radically different. Now, our adversaries simply give us the digital rope, so we can hang ourselves with it. 

Let me put it this way: imagine a diplomat three-hundred years ago going to a rival king under a banner of truce and asking to record everything the king’s heir does in his youth so the diplomat’s king can use it against the kingdom. Aside from possibly shooting the messenger, there would be no monarch that would ever allow this, yet we are letting our rivals do this to our children on a daily basis. Here’s how.

Enter TikTok.

In October 2018, TikTok had more app downloads than Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat. They’re a major player in social media, and many people older than twenty-five have no idea what it is, despite its explosive popularity. Simply put, TikTok is a social media platform for creating and sharing short videos. In November 2017, TikTok purchased Musical.ly, a similar platform and a major presence in social media for U.S. teens and preteens. There have a been slew of articles about both Musical.ly and TikTok regarding it being a haven for child predators due to many underage kids posting rather risqué videos. Recently, the Federal Trade Commission leveled the largest fine ever against TikTok under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). TikTok has been illegally storing sensitive information on children younger than thirteen-years-old without parental consent, not to mention kids thirteen-years-old and up. 

Here’s the kicker. TikTok is owned by a privately held company colloquially called ByteDance. ByteDance’s official corporate name is Beijing ByteDance Technology Co Ltd. Before its purchase by ByteDance, Musical.ly was founded in Shanghai and boasted over 90 million users before its sale and consolidation under the TikTok name.

Free social media platforms ensure that the user themselves are the product for sale, and TikTok is no different. 

In 2018, they came under fire for having virtually no privacy control whatsoever, and investigations have shown how deeply they data mine the users and replicate the data of global users back to China. TikTok has created the perfect storm for destroying future American diplomacy for the benefit of the Beijing government, and our kids today are happy to let them do it.

This isn’t a stretch in thinking either. Today’s American kids could become a Congressperson or CEO in twenty years and a strong opponent to whatever platform of alliance and trade we have with China at the time. China would now have this person’s embarrassing videos from decades ago to use at will as they see fit.

This is a serious problem.

What makes this situation even worse is that massive American tech companies like Google and Apple seem to be on board with this to an extent. While there is no doubt Google and Apple would not condone data mining on underage children or the risqué videos they seem to be posting, they are bending over backwards to the Chinese government in order to maintain their revenue stream from the country with the largest population on the planet.

In 2018, Apple decided to transfer control of iCloud accounts of Chinese citizens to a state-owned company within China. China has complete control over its citizen’s online lives by data mining them to the point that they are able to assign citizens social reputation scores based on online activity and purchase history, not to mention creating the largest internet filter the world as ever seen. They’re so good at administering and monitoring an authoritarian internet that they’re actually teaching other authoritarian states how to do it. Apple’s capitulation to China’s demands sparked a debate regarding the moral compass of US tech companies and how they interact with foreign countries. 

Google has been fully in bed with the wishes of the Beijing government for a while now. Project Dragonfly is a Google project to develop a censored search engine for use by the Chinese government. Not only will Dragonfly record what the user is searching for, but it’ll also give the government detailed information on the user, including name and phone number among other data points. Further, Google has been in talks with some of the largest China tech companies, like Tencent, to offer Google cloud products to China via data hosting in China itself. This means that China will be able to supply the already censored Chinese version of Google search to its citizens along with Gmail and other services that would then be very easy to data mine and monitor for them.

The reason why Apple and Google’s data centers in China is so problematic for the United States is because it’s incredibly inexpensive to warehouse data in China. When the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was debated (and eventually the United States withdrew from the talks on the orders of President Trump), several data-driven corporations like Facebook were very much in favor of having this enacted. It would allow them relocate U.S. citizen data to China for storage and access without violating any kind of data privacy laws. With Apple and Google opening up their products for Chinese hosting, we’re seeing the start of their ability to replicate U.S.-based data to China and vice versa. What remains to be seen is how they’ll secure the data against intrusion and monitoring from a government that demands access to everything. 

This is the world that we live in. By creating platforms that store information – good or ugly – on our future leaders while creating a welcoming environment for data storage by U.S. tech and data mining companies, China has shown that they’re not only playing the long game here but have the patience for us to unknowingly build our own noose.