(Al Jazeera Media Network) During a five-hour grilling of the chief executive of TikTok last week, United States lawmakers railed against the possibility of China using the wildly popular, partly Chinese-owned app to spy on Americans.
They did not mention how the U.S. government itself uses U.S. tech companies that largely control the global internet to spy on everyone else.
As the U.S. considers banning the short video app used by more than 150 million Americans, lawmakers are weighing the renewal of powers that force firms such as Google, Meta, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft to facilitate untrammelled spying on non-U.S. citizens located overseas.
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which the U.S. Congress must vote to reauthorize by December to prevent it from lapsing under a sunset clause, allows U.S. intelligence agencies to carry out warrantless spying on foreigners’ email, phone, and other online communications.
While U.S. citizens have some protections against warrantless searches under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. government has maintained that these rights do not extend to foreigners overseas, giving agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) practically free rein to snoop on their communications.
Information may also be turned over to U.S. allies such as the United Kingdom and Australia.
Though it is common for governments to spy abroad, Washington enjoys an advantage not shared by other countries: jurisdiction over the handful of companies that effectively run the modern internet.
For billions of internet users outside the U.S., the lack of privacy mirrors the alleged threat that U.S. officials say TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, poses to Americans.
“It is a case of ‘rules for thee but not for me,’ ” Asher Wolf, a tech researcher and privacy advocate based in Melbourne, Australia, told Al Jazeera.
“So the noise the Americans are making about TikTok must be seen less as a sincere desire to protect citizens from surveillance and influence operations, and more as an attempt to ring-fence and consolidate national control over social media,” Wolf added.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is pushing for both the power to ban TikTok and the renewal of Section 702, which it has described as an “invaluable tool that continues to protect Americans every day.”
Despite Tiktok’s efforts to assuage national security and privacy fears, including working with U.S. tech giant Oracle to store American data on U.S. soil in a $1.5-billion initiative known as “Project Texas”, a ban or forced sale of ByteDance’s stake appears increasingly likely amid growing bipartisan antipathy toward the app in Congress.
In an appearance before Congress on Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew failed to satisfy both Republicans and Democrats with his answers to a barrage of questions about data privacy and national security concerns stemming from a Chinese law that requires local companies to “support, assist, and co-operate with the state intelligence work.”
Over the weekend, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, said his colleagues “will begin moving forward with legislation to protect Americans from the technological tentacles of the Chinese Communist Party.”
The app has already been banned on U.S. government devices, as well as official devices in countries including Canada, Belgium, Denmark, and New Zealand, although an outright ban is seen as more legally fraught due to possible conflict with the First Amendment of the constitution that safeguards free speech.
Amid the growing chorus of voices casting TikTok as a threat, the privacy rights of non-Americans have received little mention.
In a recent article about the reauthorization of Section 702, The New York Times described non-US citizens’ privacy as having “played little meaningful role” in the debate.
In 2021, the most recent year for which data is available, the U.S. targeted 232,432 “non-U.S. persons” for surveillance, according to government data.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that the U.S. government has collected more than one billion communications per year since 2011, based on how the number of targets has grown since that year.
China, which has often been accused of spying on a mass scale, has said it would “firmly oppose” a forced sale of TikTok and that basing such an action on “foreign ownership, rather than its products and services” would damage investor confidence in the U.S.
China has also in the past accused the U.S. of hypocrisy on the issue of cybersecurity, pointing to spying programs such as PRISM, which was first revealed in 2013 by former NSA analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden.