Tik Tok, Surveillance, and Short Memories

The recent ruckus about the likelihood that the Chinese government might access data from American TikTok accounts is perhaps well-placed. They might also use their access to TikTok to spread propaganda and other malicious information. Certainly, the simple solution suggested by TiKTOk of storing all US user data on servers in the US is not terribly reassuring. Backdoors in software are commonplace. One would have to be careful about who the software engineers are who construct this storage facility. And, to maintain security there would have to be an ongoing security regime to protect the servers.

Somehow none of those complaining about TikTok voice any concern over surveillance by our own government of its own citizens. Forgotten are the revelations by Edward Snowden in 2013 of the National Security Administration (NSA) hoovering up billions of interactions by American citizens. So much data that the NSA had to build a massive storage facility in Utah. Forgotten is the alleged oversight by a secret Federal court system, The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, that rarely turns down a request for NSA snooping. “Over the entire 33-year period, the FISA court granted 33,942 warrants, with only 12 denials – a rejection rate of 0.03 percent of the total requests.”1 I think you could put that performance in the dictionary as a definition of “rubber stamp”.

An aerial view of the NSA’s Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah. Image borrowed from Salt Lake Tribune newspaper

Then, where is concern about our homegrown social media monopolies, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others? They are selling information about our personal lives on and off the web every day for their own corporate profit. Instead of a default setting that says no, you cannot collect information about me as I traverse the web, we have an intensely opaque system hiding behind “user agreements”.  One estimate claims that if you have 24 apps on your smartphone, the user agreements would sprawl to 2,419,200 words and require the average reader 161 hours to read.2

From another point of view, these user agreements seem to defy many elements expected in a contract. Above all, in a contract all parties must understand the terms of the contract. They must be capable of entering into a contract. Children are normally not thought to be capable in this sense. There are just lots of issues with how these contracts are formed and executed.

Finally, where is the concern about our social media monopolists taking no effective care not to allow factually false information to be spread on their platforms? Where is concern that they are making money through algorithms that spread and intensify false information?

Earlier Posts on This Topic

FISA Court – Not a Court – an Administrative Rubber Stamp – Bureaucrats Dressed Up as Judges – 7.11.2013

NSA Vacuuming, Meta Data, Mistaken Misleading Metaphors – 6.17.2013

US Vacuum Cleaning Our Privacy – the bigger story – 6.8.2013


  1. This data covers 1979 -2013
  2. Fowler, Jeffrey A. “I Tried to Read All My App Privacy Policies. It Was 1 Million Words.” Washington Post, May 31, 2022, sec. Your Data and Privacy. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/05/31/abolish-privacy-policies/.