New draft rules from Beijing require Alibaba, Baidu, and other Chinese social media companies to include “socialist values” in their versions of the generative AI software. This will likely broaden Washington’s debate about which Chinese platforms to ban other than TikTok.
But the dramatic handwringing on Capitol Hill about Chinese social media weaponizing the data of American citizens is only part of the story. The fact is that with or without your subscribership to TikTok or any other Chinese social media platforms, the People’s Republic of China probably already knows a lot about you. This is true for the same reason that U.S. federal agencies, ranging from the FBI to the Department of Homeland Security, to the IRS and the Pentagon, also have all your most personal data at their fingertips.
Whether Washington or Beijing, governments get the skinny on our private lives in the same way: they buy it from third-party data brokers, who in turn purchase our most sensitive, personal information scraped from popular apps and social media platforms.
In this way, data brokers compile a profile of you that includes your race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and income level; major life events like pregnancy and divorce; medical information like drug prescriptions and mental illness; where you’ve been according to your real-time smartphone location history; details about your family and friends; what you search for online; and your politics and beliefs. There is a reason why data brokers – shadowy players you’ve likely never heard of – are often called the “middlemen of surveillance capitalism.”
They scrape and sell thousands of data points on billions of people, creating profiles of our financial, cultural, and private lives. The primary customers for this data are businesses that want to show you ads. But there is nothing to keep China from buying this information, too. In fact, PPSA has it on good authority that China does just that through intermediaries.
Klon Kitchen of the American Enterprise Institute calls China’s purchases of Americans’ data a gaping vulnerability that is “grossly underappreciated.” And Kitchen notes that what China doesn’t buy, it steals. He quotes FBI Director Christopher Wray who said last year, “If you are an American adult, it is more likely than not that China has stolen your personal data.”
Now is not the right time for Capitol Hill to deal with this complex issue. As efforts to counter Chinese penetration and exploitation of American data ramp up, it is important for Congress to make an immediate priority to address problems with U.S. government surveillance of its own citizens.
But Congress is going to have to deal with China and other governments purchasing our data in the near future. As politicians debate the dangers of TikTok, we should keep in mind how much of our personal information China already buys from the middlemen of surveillance.