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Clock is counting down for TikTok

Good fun masking bad foreign intentions
This photo shows the TikTok icon on a phone screen. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Roger Waters might be a pop-culture jerk, but he’s an insightful songwriter. Back in 1992 he wrote a little observation about global culture. “This species has amused itself to death.” And he hadn’t even been exposed, then, to a smartphone or a touch-screen.

He certainly hadn’t predicted TikTok, the fluff-entertainment phenomenon sweeping the world. His point was more about apathy and society dumbing itself down, but what if a hostile government harnessed this condition? What if smartphone technology could ride on our instant gratification and attention hunger like a barnacle on a world-circling whale? Amusement could be weaponized.

School District 28 just banned TikTok from its networks. They aren’t the first. TikTok has been completely or partially banned from the public-sector devices of Canada, the European Union, the U.K., India, many American states individually, plus U.S. Congress federally, Australia, New Zealand, and the list is growing. If occupations of Ottawa and insurrections in Washington have been triggered by distrust of elected democratic governments, imagine the distrust there must be of the Chinese government, right? But no. That kind of backlash would mean giving up the passive fun TikTok admittedly provides. But make no mistake, the TikTok company and its parent corporation ByteDance are hardwired to the Chinese dictatorship.

We typically call spyware that annoying, invasive tool of business surveillance that greedy corporations (sometimes criminal organizations) stuff secretly on our devices to push our consumer and voting buttons. But TikTok has been deemed a full-blown security threat - spyware at the James Bond level.

For context, Russia and North Korea have been mega-bullies, lately, to put it mildly. China is their respective top ally. And China has been its own brute towards Hong Kong, Tibet, the Uyghur people, Taiwan, any political opponent, and they have been proven hostile operators right inside Canada.

We may not be at war with China, but we are not at peace. Democracy (with its crazy notions like elections, accountability, justice, accepting Roger Waters’ good songs alongside his bad behaviour) clumsily exists here, but in China these values are attacked.

Along with Huawei’s 5G network infiltration worries, and surveillance balloons, came TikTok. It’s sign-up terms overtly insist you hand over the contents of your mobile device - all your photos, what you type, where you’re located, your phone’s Media Access Control (MAC) address, etc. - with the click of the “Accept” button. Every TikTok user apathetically gives their deepest personal information to a hostile nation’s strategists. One user doesn’t amount to anything consequential, but millions of users creates a militarily useful informative network.

And that’s just what we know about. Conspiracy theorists have wondered out loud if there is technology sneakily built into TikTok that, in the event of a conflict, might allow China to turn everyone’s phone off, read texts and emails, block messages, even send lies disguised as fake messages to block transportation routes, assemble people in strategic places, rise up against a well-intentioned leader, or do things that get in the way of a national interest.

These are speculations, but there is no doubt that China has technological talent, motive, opportunity, and plenty of immediate history demonstrating spying and disruption behaviours.

And they don’t need to invade to accomplish these goals. All they have to do is amuse us. - Frank Peebles, Quesnel Cariboo Observer