This week I have been in computer hell… a new application whacked out my computer. During this week of chaos, I discovered that my virus protector is owned by a Romanian company. While the virus protector was one (of many) sources of the problem, I was more concerned about the company’s nationality. Despite its small size, Romania is a home for cyber hackers. I did the research on the company, and there appear to be no issues besides the usual misses that are common with any cyber security application. Still, I remain uneasy.
But my imagined threat with my virus protector is nothing compared to the actual threats from applications sourced by Chinese and Russian companies. After a thorough investigation, the FBI concluded that the Russians manipulated the 2016 election to assist Trump. Russia did not alter actual votes, but they targeted voter registration systems and state websites in at least 21 states and stole hundreds of thousands of voters’ personal information. Russia also implemented a misinformation campaign on social media to assist Trump. The FBI has indicted 12 Russian nationals for their role in hacking into U.S. election systems.
So, we know it can and has happened. Officials recognize that China is an even larger threat, especially through its popular phone apps, such as TikTok.
TikTok is owned by the Chinese company, ByteDance. There have been efforts in a number of countries and the United States to ban TikTok. The China National Intelligence Law of 2017 requires that all organizations and citizens “support, assist and cooperate” with all national intelligence efforts. And that is just one of the problems.
Just having the TikTok app on our phone allows TikTok to collect personal data even when it isn’t on. TikTok is also suspected of having a number of back doors (which are ways to secretly access a program and its data). Due to the law, Chinese government can gain access to any of our data at any time. It is currently used to build better facial recognition capabilities for “Western” faces. But there is some evidence that it has already been used to track and access Chinese reporters. In the future it could be used for blackmail and to track US citizens. Another concern with TikTok is that the platform can be used for manipulating opinion as Russia also did in the 2016 election.
Another frequently accessed Chinese app is WeChat. WeChat offers text, broadcast, and voice messaging as well as video conferencing, mobile payment, video games, and location and photograph sharing. It also collects data on us.
The Chinese government can be ruthless. It has already “disappeared” a number of owners of large Chinese technology companies. Even Jack Ma, a well-known Chinese billionaire, was “disappeared” for three months and no longer lives in China.
To ease security concerns, TikTok claims that its data is stored on American servers.
There are a number of Russian applications that also present a threat. Russia recognizes that we do not trust it to use Russian cellphone applications, so it provides apps to be used by other platforms. Their most widely used app is Pushwoosh. You know those annoying advertisements that appear? Pushwhoosh is an application that is used to “push” those ads onto our computer and phone. To hide its Russian ownership, the Pushwhoosh company used a US address. Our military, the CDC, Unilever, and thousands of apps sold by Apple and Google Play used Pushwhoosh without knowing that it was a Russian company. Pushwhoosh is believed to present a potential security threat, since it probably also has a backdoor that the Russians can use to gain access to our data.
However, talk to an American teenager and 20 something about the security concerns of these apps and they will tell you that they don’t care and will continue to use these apps, especially TikTok. Given how ubiquitous TikTok already is among the younger generation, it may already be too late.
It reminds me of the quote by Lenin, “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them.” But today, the rope could be the “free” app.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.