A Spy Balloon and Iceberg



It’s been major national news for weeks now: On Jan. 28, a Chinese-operated high-altitude balloon was spotted in North American airspace. On Feb. 4, the U.S. Air Force shot down the balloon over U.S. territorial waters off the coast of South Carolina.

After salvaging debris from the wreckage and sending it to an FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia, the American and Canadian militaries announced that the balloon carried surveillance equipment and was capable of geo-locating electronic communications.

This incident strikes many Americans as a shocking new development in the steadily increasing tension between the U.S. and China. But it shouldn’t be shocking and it isn’t new. On Feb. 9, the U.S. Department of State announced the balloon was part of a fleet of Chinese military surveillance balloons that had flown over more than 40 countries across five continents. The balloon we are hearing so much about in the news is actually the fifth to be detected over the continental U.S. since 2017.

While deeply concerning, it’s important to recognize that these balloons are only the tip of the iceberg. They are physical representations of a decades-long effort undertaken by the Chinese government to expand its international surveillance and control via digital technologies.

Among these, TikTok has been the primary object of public scrutiny since its U.S. launch in May 2017. FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee that potential threats posed by the platform “include the possibility that the Chinese government could use it to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations if they so chose, or to control software on millions of devices, which gives it an opportunity to potentially technically compromise personal devices.”

While some have called into question how closely TikTok’s parent company — ByteDance — is tied to China’s ruling Communist Party, one thing is certain: Chinese national security laws can force foreign and domestic firms operating within the country, such as ByteDance, to turn over their data upon request.

TikTok collects a vast array of data from the devices it’s installed on. It can track the location of users, extract phone numbers and emails from contact lists, access Wi-Fi networks, monitor internet activity, track behavior on other apps, access the camera to take photos and videos, access the microphone to record sound, and accrue a staggering amount of psychographic data.

TikTok’s recommendation algorithm is one of the keys to the app’s meteoric rise to roughly 1 billion monthly users worldwide, about 80 million of whom are Americans. While this algorithm allows the app to personalize content for each user, it does this primarily by collecting and analyzing incalculable quantities of psychographic data on users’ personalities, values, opinions, attitudes, interests and lifestyles.

And, as FBI director Wray said, the algorithm can potentially be modified to influence public discourse, with some already claiming content potentially threatening to the Chinese government has been censored.

A fleet of spy balloons couldn’t achieve that level of mass surveillance and control in their wildest dreams. Both the balloons and TikTok are serious national security threats, but they still don’t make up the whole iceberg.

Aynne Kokas, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and director of the East Asia Center, describes TikTok as “part of a larger Chinese government effort to expand extraterritorial control over digital platforms.” She even argues that banning TikTok is not the best solution, likening it to playing whack-a-mole as China continues to expand its digital territory.

She says, “When we look at all of these wide-ranging apps that are connected to Chinese firms, it’s actually almost nonsensical to ban just one when we see platforms in areas like precision agriculture, communications, gaming, all connected to Chinese firms. So what’s really important is to develop more robust data privacy regulations in the United States to protect users.”

So the problem is not just TikTok or even the fleet of spy balloons floating over five continents. The problem is the broader enterprise of technological imperialism pursued around the world by the Chinese government throughout recent decades.

When I talked with a friend recently about the potential dangers of TikTok, he remarked, “The second Cold War is already happening. Most people just don’t realize it yet.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “cold war” as “a state of political hostility between countries characterized by threats, propaganda, and other measures short of open warfare.”

Even before ByteDance launched TikTok in the U.S. and the Chinese military launched its fleet of spy balloons across the globe, each of these criteria for a cold war had already been met. While both nations have denied engaging in cyberwarfare, China and the U.S. have been issuing accusations and threats over cyberattacks for years.

Many of the attacks perpetrated by Chinese hackers have been aimed at espionage, intellectual property theft, personal and commercial data theft, theft of personal and commercial financial information, compromising corporate infrastructures and theft of classified material (often pertaining to U.S. miliary operations). Some federal officials have even accused China of interfering in recent elections.

If any of these actions were isolated occurrences, then perhaps an argument could be made against our being engaged in an active cold war. But they aren’t, and we are. Chinese hackers have persisted in these attacks regularly for years in spite of repeated warnings and massive cybersecurity efforts.

If compelled to share their data with the Chinese government, TikTok and other apps owned by Chinese firms represent massive boosts to the efficacy of both cyberattacks and propaganda operations. And we have no guarantee ByteDance won’t modify, or hasn’t already modified, its recommendation algorithm to censor some videos and promote others for the purpose of influencing American politics. 

The U.S. and China are engaged in a mostly invisible conflict waged with software rather than rifles. The advent of TikTok and the recent sightings of spy balloons are not harbingers of a potential war — they are just the most heavily publicized demonstrations of an ongoing cold war.

Our national security and personal privacy demand sweeping reforms on data collection rules. A variety of bans and countermeasures have already been proposed and implemented across the U.S. But all policy decisions need to be made with the understanding that devices, platforms, apps, algorithms and data sets accessible to adversarial foreign governments can be, and have been, used as weapons of war and instruments of espionage and propaganda.

It’s vital that all of us urge our elected officials to implement major countermeasures congruent to the severity of this threat to our country and our own personal privacy. As American citizens, we need to educate ourselves in a smart and humble way. Hubris helped sink the Titanic that was thought by many to be unsinkable.

TikTok and spy balloons are just the tip of the iceberg. And the U.S. may risk going the way of the Titanic if we fail to see the greater danger hiding underwater.


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