Three years ago this week marks the beginning of lockdown in the UK. Like many other people, I engaged in a lot of long forgotten hobbies in an attempt to keep myself sane. I dug out an old sketchbook and drew the view from my window, I logged onto a language learning app and refreshed my Spanish while also learning the basics of Gàidhlig, French and Swedish. And, also like many others, I tried some new things too. I began practising yoga, perfected my espresso martini recipe and, along with one billion others, downloaded TikTok.
It was a way to pass an afternoon, watching others try to amuse the wider public with quick wit sketches to get us all through what was a tough time and, as the infamous algorithm got to know me, my habits and hobbies better, more and more tailored content made for an amusing, informative, and overall positive experience.
This, however, is only my personal experience, and TikTok has never been without its fair share of controversy, such as accusations of tailoring violent, hateful or otherwise suggestive content towards younger users, of censorship,it has even been accused of affecting our collective attention spans through its short-form content format.
Now this week the Chinese-owned app is back in the headlines after it was announced that both UK and Scottish government employees are no longer permitted to have the app on their government-issued devices. BBC employees have also been advised to delete the app, and now the US federal government is expected to follow suit following a similar ban for government employees of 17 states, and numerous previous attempts have been made in the US to ban the app outright over concerns for national security. But what does this say about declining relations between the West and China? Was this inevitable? Is this just the latest in a long line of Cold-War-esque stunts to pit us against our fellow humans?
Tensions have been building between the nations since the upturn in the Chinese economy around 10-20 years ago. They went from ‘inferior’, to healthy economic competitor, to mortal enemy over the span of the 21st century, and now we find ourselves setting the stage for similar tensions to that of the Soviet Union.
Only a few weeks ago, the world watched in amazement as several unidentified flying objects were shot down over the US and Canada. Some of these were later identified as weather balloons made in China, the narrative being that they had simply flown off course. As accusations of surveillance began to fly, long held tensions soon began to surface, culminating in the Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponing his trip to Beijing. But, just as quickly as the story escalated, it seemed to all but disappear from the headlines. An apparent misunderstanding once again spiralling into hysteria, only resolved by the behind-the-scenes diplomacy that never receives as much credit as it’s due.
None of this should be construed as a display of sympathy towards an authoritarian regime, or a tacit approval of the extent to which both nations, and the private companies within them, keep track of their citizens via their personal data. International relations, when they deteriorate, become a dirty game of deception, and all residents of both nations are expected to play their part for no other reason than the side of the line they happen to reside.
With this latest instalment, we’re now playing politics with entertainment. Has there ever been a clearer indication that the Second Cold War the experts had been warning about for years is nearly upon us? Beware of the technology that didn’t originate here, you don’t know what they want to do with your data! They could be harvesting it to sell on to advertisers, or try to steal your information and target your online security!
It’s not as if Western-owned social media apps are any better. Cambridge Analytica anyone? Companies use and harvest our data all the time for the purpose of selling us products, or selling our time and attention to other conglomerates. If a service is free, your data is the product. Just because someone else is now doing it, doesn’t make it any better. Our data has always been for sale, and it’s only now that because we’re not 100% trustworthy of the buyer that this is being peddled as a concern.
It would be rather pretentious of me to assume that my personal data would contain anything of enough interest to prospective buyers that I should be concerned about it leaking. From a security point of view, there are measures we can take as individuals to reduce the risk such as using VPNs and creating secure passwords (who knew it was now recommended to keep track of passwords using pen and paper now? Imagine trying to tell the early online safety buffs how things have changed).
Personally, I don’t see myself giving up the app anytime soon. My data is no more at risk now than it was last week, last month, or last year. I’ve accepted my fate that, as a young person growing up around the internet boom and consequently, having grown with it, that I am probably being surveyed. I certainly have nothing important to hide on my TikTok account, I don’t even make or post my own content, and if the only thing the algorithm has on me is that I quite like cute dog videos, then I am no better or more important than the next internet user. In short, there is certainly nothing new in all of this for us mortals to worry about.