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Tom Hazlett on the TikTok ban



Tom Hazlett on the TikTok Ban

In my opinion, Tom Hazlett is the best writer on economics working today. He has a way with words. And good writing necessarily requires good thinking.

Tom recently got one recent post about the TikTok ban, that was so good that I didn’t want to include it as one of many in my weekly Sunday reading post.

He wrote:

And so President Joe Biden signed the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act of 2024, which requires China-based company ByteDance to spin off TikTok or face its ban. Separating the company from the app would solve the problem other problem often attributed to TikTok: the loop linking US users’ personal data to the Chinese Communist Party. The loop has already been cut, TikTok argues, because the data of American users is now stored at Oracle in Texas. That’s about as believable as those TikTok baby talk vignettes, Congress responds.

If Congress has the Communists in its grasp, tell! The 2000s Homeland Security threat assessment color maps are brown, rested and ready. But shutting down a business because of mere rumors – that’s really true is an ugly import from China.

Later on:

Instead of shouting about potential threats, TikTok’s enemies should report actual lies or breaches of trust. When this is criminal – such as illegal appropriation of user data – such misconduct should be prosecuted by authorities. Yet National Security experts often disappear here.

New York Times reporter David Sanger, in The perfect weapon (2018), provides spectacular context. Around the summer of 2014, U.S. intelligence discovered that a major state actor — believed by officials to be China — had hacked into U.S. servers and stolen data from 22 million current and former U.S. government officials. More than 4 million of these victims lost highly personal information, including Social Security numbers, medical records, fingerprints and background checks. The US database was not encrypted. It was such a sensational flaw that, when the theft was eventually discovered, it was noted that the outgoing data had been (oddly) encrypted, an upgrade the hackers had conscientiously provided to carry out their break-in surreptitiously.

Here’s the killer: Sanger reports that “the government has never come to terms with the 22 million Americans whose data was lost – except by accident.” The victims were simply given a note informing them that “some of their information may have been lost” and offered subscriptions to credit monitoring. This in itself was a bit of a ruse; the hack was identified as a hostile intelligence operation because the retrieved data was not sold on the Dark Web.

I was one of those 22 million. I still remember the anonymous letter I received from the US government. More about that in the postscript.

Here’s what I’m wondering: What’s the biggest threat to Americans’ privacy: the Chinese government or the US government? The Chinese government has limits to what it can do with stolen private data. The US government, because it is here, has wider boundaries.

Hazlett ended with this:

While keeping the American public in the dark about real infringements, US officials are raising the specter of a possible infringement to trample on freedom of expression. The TikTok ban is Fool’s Gold. The First Amendment is pure genius. Let’s keep one.

On the First Amendment issue, I found it striking that Senator Mitt Romney wants to ban TikTok because he wants to limit freedom of speech.

Here is a segment from a report in The New Republic.

“I mean, the Israelis are usually good at PR. What happened here? How have they – how have they, and we, been so ineffective in communicating the reality there and our position?” Romney asked Blinken, apparently in disbelief that images of Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of Gaza have sparked outrage in the United States.

Romney then explained that the TikTok ban is overwhelming passed both houses of Congress due to widespread Palestinian advocacy for the app.

“Some are wondering why there was such overwhelming support for us to potentially shut down TikTok or other similar entities. If you look at the posts on TikTok and the number of mentions of Palestinians compared to other social media sites, this is overwhelmingly the case with TikTok broadcasts. So I note that this is of real importance, and the president will have an opportunity to take action in that regard,” Romney said.

Politicians often like to attribute their own motives to others. I don’t know if the main motivation for voting against TikTok was Romney mentioned above. But it is quite clear from the context that this was Romney’s motivation.

PS I wrote on this subject in August 2020. I’ll end with an excerpt:

What about the third objection to trade with China: namely that it can use various apps to surveil Americans? Again, as with the other two objections to trade with China, it is true. But in the major recent alleged case of such surveillance, TikTok, it’s hard to see how that’s a problem. In an August discussionHoover economist John Cochrane challenged Hoover historian Niall Ferguson and Hoover national security expert HR McMaster supported their view that TikTok was dangerous to Americans. Ferguson stated that TikTok is addictive for young people. I’m sure this is true, just like with computer games, but that has nothing to do with China.

McMaster argued that TikTok collects data about Americans, especially young people. I’m sure that’s true too, just like Facebook and Instagram do the same thing with different audiences. But how does this hurt Americans in any important way? Like Julian Sanchez from the Cato Institute wrote recently:

You can imagine how such information could be misused by a government interested in monitoring its own citizens, but it’s harder to formulate a coherent reason why Midwestern teens who post cat videos should fear that Maoists scrutinize their system settings or geotags.

People leave much to be desired for dance performances by young women, as we learned when a video of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dancing while studying at Boston University was leaked. My own reaction was that she was a great dancer.

HR McMaster argued that the Chinese government wants to ‘weaponize data’. He’s probably right. But how exactly do you weaponize data from, for example, dancing young women? Interestingly, his best example of how the Chinese government collected data that could harm Americans was the Chinese government’s hacking of the confidential data held by millions of federal employees a few years ago. That used to be serious. But notice that they did that without trade. [DRH additional note: and without TikTok.] Furthermore, poor security by the US federal government made hacking easier than otherwise. I was a US federal employee in 2015 when the hacking took place and Beth F. Cobert, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, wrote to tell me that my data had been hacked. Here is an excerpt from her letter:

Because you have applied for a position or submitted a background check, the data in our records may include your name, social security number, address, date and place of birth, place of residence, educational and employment history, personal foreign travel history, information about immediate family, as well as business and personal acquaintances, and other information used to conduct and review your background check.

She added: “Our records also indicate that your fingerprints were likely compromised during the cyber intrusion.”

I distinctly remember that the hacked form I had filled out the year before asked me if I had committed adultery in the past seven years. That was important, you see, because the US government needed to know if I could be blackmailed. Fortunately, my answer was no, but note that the US government had made it easier for the Chinese government to blackmail federal employees who answered yes.

I want the federal government to protect this kind of data, not pictures of young girls dancing.