© Vincent Kilbride

An internet with less surveillance could be possible. This is how

Countries are banning TikTok over security concerns about Chinese snooping. We would do better to look closer to home—at the threats to digital privacy that are all around us
April 5, 2023

TikTok, the mobile video browsing platform, is arguably the fastest-growing media phenomenon in history. Based on providing short videos that have been selected algorithmically to meet user preferences, a predecessor of the platform was rolled out in China in 2016 with an app called Douyin. An internationalised version—TikTok—was launched shortly afterwards, and by 2020 had surpassed two billion downloads.

Almost since inception, TikTok’s growth has been challenged by governments around the world. It has now been banned from devices issued by governments or parliaments (sometimes both) in Britain, Canada and Belgium. The EU and the Danish Ministry of Defence have imposed similar restrictions, and the platform is blocked entirely in India, Afghanistan and elsewhere. In the US, Donald Trump threatened a nationwide ban unless TikTok’s owner, Chinese firm ByteDance, sold operations to a US entity. While Joe Biden initially backtracked on Trump’s threats, 32 US states have nonetheless issued bans comparable to the EU measure, and legislation pending in Congress threatens a total ban on ­Chinese and ­Russian-owned social ­networks operating in America if they are perceived to undermine national security.

So what’s so sinister about an app that promotes lip-sync videos and viral dance crazes?

There are both good and bad reasons to be suspicious of TikTok. As any user will tell you, it’s easy to lose hours to the app: a recent study found that an average TikTok user spent 95 minutes a day browsing it, leading to concerns about addiction. Some of these concerns sound like run-of-the-mill technopanic; many online commentators have drawn inferences about TikTok’s impact on attention spans from a single study that actually looked at a different social platform (Twitter).

Other concerns merit closer examination. It’s difficult to keep mis- and disinformation off social media platforms, especially video-centric ones. Covid misinformation has circulated on TikTok, and western government officials fear that the platform could be a channel for Chinese propaganda. (Taiwan, which faces a serious threat from China, is among those countries to have banned the app from government-owned devices and is reportedly contemplating broader restrictions.)

Many concerns about TikTok centre on surveillance. Forbes ran an extensive investigation by reporter Emily Baker-White documenting ties between ByteDance and media outlets controlled by the Chinese government, including 15 cases where employees appeared to be working both for ­ByteDance and for state media ­simultaneously. ByteDance responded to this reporting by using data from the TikTok app installed on journalists’ phones to try and discover whether its employees had served as sources. Forbes in turn reported on this investigation, and ­ByteDance fired the employee allegedly responsible for the spying effort. The incident has only strengthened arguments that TikTok could be seen as a privacy risk.

Opting out of technology isn’t for Luddites. It requires deep engagement with the online communities that build alternatives

What’s ironic is that the privacy-violating behaviours that TikTok is accused of committing are uncomfortably common across the social media space. Investigative journalism site the Markup has documented a complex landscape of location “data brokers” who, having bought information from hundreds of mobile apps that track users’ locations, sell that information to the highest bidder. Life360, a “family safety” app designed to let parents track their children via their mobile phones, sold location data to approximately a dozen data brokers, who in turn sold that information to virtually anyone willing to pay for it—such as marketers offering geotargeted advertising. Governments can—and do—buy this kind of information as well, and the US military has bought data from prayer and Quran apps, presumably to target Muslim users.

As many as 4,000 data-broker companies make up a global industry worth more than $200bn. Location data represents a small fraction of the data-brokering space, probably $16bn. Laws like the EU’s GDPR have tried to protect users, with the now-ubiquitous popups asking if you’d like to opt out of cookie-based tracking. But opting out of digital surveillance more broadly is extremely difficult, expensive and likely to make you look like a criminal.

In 2013, US sociologist Janet Vertesi decided to keep her first pregnancy a secret from the internet as an experiment in the power of surveillance systems. Pregnant women are particularly attractive marketing targets, since they are entering years of major purchasing decisions (pushchairs, nappies, formula milk) that Vertesi says makes them worth 200 times as much as non-pregnant targets. Vertesi ordered friends and family to keep news of her pregnancy off social media; began using Tor, a privacy-orientated browser; used only cash (or vouchers bought with cash) to purchase baby-related items; and refused to benefit from loyalty programmes that risked her being tracked. But an attempt to buy $500 worth of gift vouchers to purchase a buggy on Amazon triggered a warning: these vouchers are ­often used for money laundering, and so their bulk purchase is closely monitored by law enforcement.

Vertesi has been opting out of technology systems since 2012: she stopped using services from Google once the tech giant began aggregating and correlating user data between its various products. She eschews most social media, though she does use open-source social network Mastodon, and has opted for a phone running a Linux-based operating system, Sailfish, which aligns more closely with her values—especially compared with Apple or Google. Opting out isn’t easy: Vertesi experimented with building her own smartphone before realising that there’s no easy way to stay anonymous when you connect to a mobile network. She explains that opting out of technology isn’t for Luddites, but requires deep engagement with the online communities that build alternatives.

For those seeking to escape the surveillance economy, Vertesi maintains a set of resources called The Opt Out Project, sharing lessons she’s learned in her years of activism. But, she warns, “It is a lifestyle choice, and… it does get increasingly inconvenient and a heavy load.” It’s unlikely that a popular movement of this kind will challenge the fundamental business model of the internet.

But voluntary measures are more defensible than the involuntary, such as forcing citizens to stop using TikTok. The fear of TikTok is less a fear of surveillance than a fear of China’s rising technological power. The firm is a target primarily because it’s the first ­Chinese software company to beat American social ­media ­giants at their own game. If governments were serious about countering abuses of surveillance technologies, they would take aim at the data brokers operating in the west, and not just politically convenient ­targets.

Banning citizens from using a social media platform is not something nations that respect freedom of expression should do; regulating business models so that using social media does not mean exposing yourself to surveillance abuses might well be. Vertesi’s work shows us that an internet with less surveillance is possible, at least for a small number of technically adept users. We should work to make opting out of surveillance possible for more people, rather than taking away the option of watching those lip-syncing videos altogether. 

Will AI lead to a new era of glorious co-creation? Read Ethan’s book review from our May edition here