That other kind of privacy

There’s the data privacy that has dominated the news since it made “Cambridge Analytica” a household name. Then there’s the kind of privacy that’s only just becoming an important story, with…

  • Huawei” spoken in the same sentence as “national security” (a German Foreign Ministry official just commented on how it would be hard to work with “a company that cooperates with its [country’s] national secret service,” Bloomberg.com reported.
  • WeChat surfacing in stories about Facebook consolidating its messaging services and adding digital coin and system-wide end-to-end encryption (toward creating a service in direct competition with WeChat, whose parent is China-based tech giant Tencent).
  • TikTok “blowing up” in the US and India as social media’s newest star, now reportedly №3 for downloads in Apple’s and Google’s app stores and with 75 million new users added in December, up 275% from December 2017, Quartz just reported.

Personal AND geopolitical

Three very different news stories with one thing in common: the companies are based in China. “So?” you might ask. Well, now we’re talking about that other kind of privacy I mentioned in the headline: citizens’ privacy from their governments. The Chinese government has a very different take on the notion of civil liberties, including citizens’ privacy. For one thing, all Chinese citizens have a national identity card that’s “a vital part of life in China,” Abacusnews.com reports. The Public Security Bureau issues it to “every citizen at the age of 16,” and it “lists a person’s full name, gender, ethnicity, date of birth and permanent address, together with a color photo.” And without that card, “it’s virtually impossible to get a driving license, open a bank account, check into hotels, purchase high-speed train tickets, or board flights.”

Fine, so we have driver’s licenses and social security cards (though the ACLU does suggest that a national identity card is an order of magnitude more problematic for privacy). But think about our ID documents being linked up to all the psychographic data in all our social media—all the demographic stuff like address, age, gender, ethnicity, etc., plus voting and shopping habits, religion, favorite books and movies, etc., etc. Like linking up all that you post in Instagram, Twitter and now our kids on TikTok with your government ID.

National ID card in an app

That’s what’s happening in China. The Public Security Bureau (sort of like our FBI) is working with WeChat and other apps to roll out digital national identity “cards” on everybody’s smartphones. WeChat has 79% market penetration in China (at 1.08 billion monthly active users), according to Businessofapps.com, and people use it for everything from shopping and banking to calling cabs and ordering dinner. That’s psychographic data linked up with government.

In my last post, I mentioned the possible “upside of [Facebook’s] size” — the geopolitical aspect of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement last week. I did not do so because I’ve been a youth safety adviser to Facebook; I did so as a U.S. citizen with life-long conditioning to be leery of government surveillance — that of my own government, let alone another. I made that reference to Facebook’s size and resources in the context of potential competition for a China-based app that works directly with its Ministry of Public Security.

Huawei is obviously a story about geopolitics and technology, with multiple countries involved — see coverage from Fiercewireless.com and the Financial Times.

World’s ‘most valued startup’

As for TikTok, that’s a big story not just because it’s the West’s new social media rising star, and not just because it’s the first Chinese social media company attaining huge popularity on at least two other continents besides East Asia. It’s a big story in terms of geopolitics and privacy too.

TikTok parent Bytedance is “the highest valued Internet startup in the world” with a $75 billion valuation, according to ForeignPolicy.com, and “the potential for Chinese government interference in ByteDance is considerable…. Like other tech firms in China, there’s little the company can do about it.”

[TikTok has safety challenges too, BTW. It’s good that users can’t send images or videos in messages or comments and of course can block or report creepy messages from people they don’t know, as Motherboard reports. But Motherboard’s story led with the news that kids are getting those creepy messages in TikTok. We need to encourage them to do that blocking and reporting — or even disabling messaging if it gets annoying or intrusive.]

But back to this other sort of privacy. How amazing that privacy news, now, is not just personal—or about business practices or government regulation or even just about all of the above. When we’re talking about privacy now, we can now actually be talking about personal and national security in the same breath.

Anne Collier is founder and executive director of The Net Safety Collaborative, home of the U.S.’s social media helpline for schools. She has been writing about youth and digital media at NetFamilyNews.org since before there were blogs and advising tech companies since 2009 (full-length bio here).