from the zero-calorie-performance dept
For decades, U.S. politicians leaders utterly refused to support most meaningful privacy protections for consumers. They opposed any nationwide privacy law, however straightforward. They opposed privacy rules for broadband ISPs. They also fought tooth and nail to ensure the nation’s top privacy enforcement agency, the FTC, lacked the authority, staff, funds, or resources to actually do its job.
This greed-centric apathy created a wild west data monetization industry across telecom, app makers, hardware vendors, and data brokers that sees little real accountability, in turn resulting in just an endless parade of scams, hacks, breaches, and other privacy and security violations.
Those same policymakers are now freaking out because one app and one app only, TikTok, has taken full advantage of the lax privacy and security environment these policymakers directly created.
Hyperventilating about TikTok has become one of the GOP’s policies du jour, gifting a rotating crop of performative GOP politicians (like the FCC’s Brendan Carr) repeated TV appearances.
At the same time, numerous states have announced they’ll be banning the use of TikTok on all government devices. South Dakota Governor Kristi proudly announced such a ban last week. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan joined her shortly thereafter. Georgia lawmakers are planning a similar ban.
Not to be outdone, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has announced he’s working on a similar ban. In a letter to state lawmakers, Abbott lamented the potential privacy violation TikTok represents:
“TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices—including when, where, and how they conduct Internet activity—and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.”
Here’s the thing these grandstanding politicians either don’t understand or are ignoring: nearly every app, service, and device in your home is hoovering up just an endless trove of information on your every waking moment, from when you wake up in the morning, to which path you took to work, then selling that poorly protected data to absolutely any nitwit (including governments) for a nickel.
In this reality, fixating exclusively on TikTok is both dumb and performative. Yeah, TikTok probably shouldn’t be on government employee phones. That said, neither should dozens if not hundreds of other apps and services repeatedly found to be over-collecting and poorly securing user data. The delusion that you’re safe simply if the app isn’t Chinese is just toddler thinking.
These policymakers have created such an unaccountable dumpster fire, you could ban TikTok today and the Chinese government could simply turn around, and in a matter of hours, buy most if not more of the same sensitive user data from a rotating crop of data brokers. Brokers who increasingly face only the lightest of occasional wrist slaps for the overcollection and oversharing of user data, something that’s become exponentially more problematic post-Dobbs.
Actually fixing this problem requires properly funding and staffing privacy regulators. It requires passing a baseline nationwide privacy law for the Internet era. It requires holding companies (and executives personally) meaningfully accountable for lax security and privacy standards.
We, of course, don’t want to actually do that, because actually caring about privacy, security, consumer empowerment, and market health would cost numerous U.S. companies billions of dollars annually. So instead we’ve embraced silly performances, such as singularly freaking out about a single app in a sea of problematic apps, devices, hardware, and services.
What’s dressed up to resemble a good faith concern about national security and privacy is really just a distraction from our longstanding failures on consumer protection, privacy/security standards, and accountability.
Again it’s your right to singularly hyperventilate about TikTok as the root of all evil, and TikTok absolutely has been caught doing sleazy things. But if you’re focusing on TikTok and TikTok only, completely oblivious as to how our repeated abandonment of privacy and accountability created the problem, you’re just flapping your arms around and making noise for the camera.
Filed Under: apps, china, data brokers, devices, ftc, georgia, maryland, privacy, security, surveillance, texas, wireless