Last week, India took the extraordinary step of banning 59 Chinese-origin applications, including the popular TikTok, as tensions continue to erupt between India and China over the disputed Current Control Line in Ladakh.
TikTok India issued a statement, explaining its position and its intention to restore the application for Indian users, but so far, negotiations have been halted due to the conflict.
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TikTok, in February of its year, had around 81 million users in India, the largest market for the app outside of China, while more recent reports have suggested that the app may have been for around 200 million Indian users. assets at the time of their ban.
India’s decision to cut potential links to the Chinese government, through applications originating in China, highlights growing concerns about data collection and how foreign governments can use it. And that could become a critical point of debate as more questions are raised about the amount of data available and what it could potentially mean if used against us.
As we saw in the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook became a key weapon of political persuasion, and that, apparently, awakened more nations to the power of data collection as a tool of domination and a means to infiltrate and influence how they are perceived.
Since then, we have seen multiple reports from foreign-based organizations seeking to turn social platforms into weapons to change voter sentiment. This year alone, Facebook, as detailed in its monthly ‘Coordinated Inattentive Behavior’ reports, has removed more than 2,000 Facebook pages and 1,800 Instagram profiles as a result of its investigations into it.
These deletions point to the growing anguish over the data war, and how social platforms and user data can turn against citizens for political gain. That’s a significant change in perspective for policymakers, many of whom, as demonstrated in Mark Zuckerberg’s 2018 Congressional testimony, have been struggling to understand the implications of the change on social media.
But now, with the advancement of data and surveillance measures, and the gathering of more information about individuals by foreign entities, concerns are mounting. And that could have significant implications for the future of social media connectivity.
We are now witnessing the next level of this escalation: this week Facebook has announced that it will stop processing all requests from the Hong Kong government for user data, due to concerns about connecting with the Chinese government and how it could use such information.
At the same time, the Australian government is reportedly considering a request to subject TikTok to a national security review, which could lead to a ban on the app in that nation, similar to India.
The Australian government recently announced a significant increase in defense spending, citing increased regional instability, and many see this as a direct reference to the threat posed by China. If tensions escalate between China and other nations in the region, banning an app that can provide data to the Chinese government makes sense, but it would still be an extraordinary move.
Could this eventually lead to a new way of structuring data, in which each platform must essentially sublicense its regional entities to keep its data servers completely separate? Would it be enough to eliminate concerns about data sharing?
(As an added bonus, a sublicense structure would allow nations to tax each platform in accordance with local laws, although that probably also means that the platforms themselves would strongly oppose any such movement.)
One of the big factors to consider here is that Facebook, Google, and Apple already have everyone’s personal information. While Facebook largely closed access to its chart to outside sources after the Cambridge Analytical debacle, Facebook itself still has it and is gathering more information every day. Tech giants have more information on habits, interests, personalities, etc. of people who have been registered at any time in history. If they wanted to, tech giants could create intricate and complex profiles of each user group, and segment them into whatever category they want.
If they wanted to influence the outcome of, say, a choice, technology platforms could do so. In the same way that Cambridge Analytical reportedly used psychographic profiling to understand which users would be more open to certain types of messages, Facebook itself could do so with much greater success.
But they won’t, will they? We trust the platforms we know, the nations with which we are familiar, because why would we not? What do we have to fear?
That, increasingly, will become a key question for the government and regulatory organizations to consider, as the new shift to the information warfare heats up. Right now, what we understand is that sophisticated foreign actors have tried to influence voter actions through divisive ads and Facebook groups, but as more analysis emerges, we are also beginning to understand that leaving the data of users in the hands of foreign entities, including allies, presents a level of risk.
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