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TikTok, China, India and the New Data Battleground

Last week, India took the extraordinary step of banning 59 apps of Chinese origin, including the wildly popular TikTok, as tensions continue to flare between India and China over the disputed Line of Actual Control in Ladakh.

TikTok India has issued a statement, explaining its position, and its intention to restore the app for Indian users, but thus far, any negotiations have been halted due to the conflict.

TikTok, as of February his year, had around 81 million users in India, the app’s biggest market outside of China, while more recent reports have suggested the app could have been up to around 200 million active Indian users at the time of it being banned.

India’s decision to sever potential links to the Chinese Government, via Chinese-originated apps, highlights the rising concerns around data gathering, and how much can be used by foreign governments. And that could become a critical point of debate, as more questions are raised as to how much data is available, and what, potentially, that could mean if it were to be used against us.

As we saw in the 2016 US Presidential Election, Facebook became a key weapon of political persuasion, and that, seemingly, awakened more nations to the power of data-gathering as a dominance tool and means to infiltrate and influence how they are perceived.

Since then, we’ve seen various reports of foreign-originated organizations seeking to weaponize social platforms in order to shift voter sentiment. This year alone, Facebook, as detailed in its Monthly ‘Coordinated inauthentic Behavior’ reports, has removed more than 2,000 Facebook Pages, and 1,800 Instagram profiles, as a result of its investigations into such.

These removals point to the rising angst around data warfare, and how both social platforms and user data can be turned against citizens for political benefit. That’s a significant shift in perspective for policymakers, many of whom, as demonstrated in Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony in 2018, have been struggling to get their heads around the full implications of the social media shift.

But now, with data and surveillance measures advancing, and more information being gathered on individuals by foreign entities, concerns are indeed rising. And that could have significant implications for the future of social media connectivity.

Now we’re witnessing the next level of this escalation – this week, Facebook has announced that it will stop processing all Hong Kong government requests for user data, due to concerns over a connection with the Chinese Government, and how such information could be used.

As per The New York Times:

“The Facebook decision is a rare public questioning of Chinese policy by a large American internet company, and it raises questions about how the security law will be applied online in Hong Kong, where the internet is not censored as it is in the rest of China.”

At the same time, the Australian Government is reportedly considering a request to subject TikTok to a national security review, which could lead to a ban on the app in that nation, similar to India.

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The Australian Government recently announced a significant boost in defense spending, citing increased regional instability, with many seeing this as a direct reference to the threat posed by China. If tensions do indeed increase between China and other nations in the region, the banning of an app that could provide data to the Chinese Government makes sense – but still, it would be an extraordinary measure to take.

Could that eventually lead to a whole new way of structuring data, where each platform is required to essentially sub-license their regional entities in order to keep their data servers wholly separate? Would that be enough to eliminate concerns around data-sharing?

(As an added bonus, a sub-licensing structure would enable nations to tax each platform according to local laws – though that also likely means that the platforms themselves would strongly oppose any such move)

One of the big factors to consider here is that Facebook, Google, and Apple already have everyone’s personal information. While Facebook largely shut off access to its graph to outside sources following the Cambridge Analytica debacle, Facebook itself still has it, and it’s gathering more information every day. The tech giants have more information on people’s habits, interests, personalities, etc. than has been recorded at any time in history. If they so wanted, the tech giants could create intricate, complex profiles of every user group, and segment them into any category they wished.

If they wanted to influence the outcome of, say, an election, the tech platforms could indeed do that. In the same way that Cambridge Analytica reportedly used psychographic profiling to understand which users would be more open to certain types of messaging, Facebook itself could do that much more successfully.

But they won’t, right? We trust the platforms we know, in the nations we’re familiar with – because why wouldn’t we? What do we have to fear?

That, increasingly, will become a key question for Government and regulatory organizations to consider, as the new shift into information warfare heats up. Right now, what we understand is that sophisticated foreign actors have sought to influence voter actions through divisive ads and Facebook groups, but as more analysis comes about, we’re also starting to understand that leaving user data in the hands of foreign entities, even allies, presents a level of risk.

In the immediate future, that could see more nations cutting off access to apps like TikTok, due to the secretive policy approaches of the Chinese Government. But looking further ahead, will we also see more nations re-assessing how their citizens’ data is gathered and stored more generally?

UPDATE: Both Google and Twitter have also put a halt on data requests from the Hong Kong Government.