TikToking Lives Away: Malware, China and Genocide

Ever since the demise of the popular video sharing app Vine in December of 2016, many have craved the next big video sharing app. Enter TikTok, an app launched by ByteDance, a Beijing based internet technology company founded by Zhang Yiming in 2012. TikTok’s explosive popularity has led Yiming to become the ninth richest man in China, as monthly users as of 2019 clock in at 1 billion people

However, TikTok was not Yiming’s first attempt to make an app that would get Gen-Z  hooked. In 2018, Yiming’s earlier video sharing app Neihan Duanzi was shuttered by the Chinese government’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT) for “vulgar content.” In an apology to Communist Party officials, Yiming criticized his company and product, saying that “we took the wrong path and content appeared that was incommensurate with socialist values.” However, Mr. Yiming wouldn’t let the Communist Party dampen his ambitions; he instead chose to “deepen our cooperation with official party (CCP) media, elevating distribution of authoritative media content, and ensuring that official party media voices are broadcast to show strength.” Not long after the Communist Party’s crackdown on Neihan Duanzi, advertorial videos showcasing China’s army, police, and strength of the Communist Party began to appear on the app after tweaking the algorithm of the app. 

Neihan Duanzi was never successfully marketed outside China, but Yiming’s new app TikTok has brought in billions for ByteDance. In the U.S. millions of citizens have downloaded and posted on TikTok videos of endless content. Most U.S. citizens are clueless to the fact that they are enjoying a Chinese Communist Party approved piece of malware on their phones. Forbes reported on an investigation into TikTok by Apple in early 2020, where technology researchers Talal Haj Bakry and Tommy Mysk discovered that TikTok was able to read and store information copied to your clipboard if it was installed on your phone. Any time a user would copy a picture, message, link, or anything to the clipboard, TikTok would not only store that information away, the app would also note patterns on your keyboard, including the order of every single keystroke. TikTok stated it would stop this practice in April of 2020, but in June of 2020 Apple had to issue a iOS 14 that warned when an app was taking your keyboard information. TikTok was still stealing its users’ information.

Scrambling to cover itself, TikTok issued a statement that they had “already submitted an updated version of the app to the App Store removing the anti-spam feature to eliminate any potential confusion.” In other words: We got caught doing something we weren’t supposed to be doing, but don’t worry we’ve fixed it. TikTok’s malware doesn’t just copy your keyboard information. If you’ve enabled your fingerprint to unlock your phone, or own a Macbook or iPad, TikTok can read whatever you type on those devices too, as well as have a reading of your fingerprint. This is because of Apple’s “universal clipboard functionality” that allows your Apple devices to be interconnected with each other for ease of use. So if TikTok is downloaded on your phone while you are working, it can read anything: passwords, documents, emails, and bank information.

Who cares though, right? I still want to be able to do the latest dances, memes, and viral challenges so I’m not missing out on anything! That’s the standard excuse I hear from a lot of U.S. college students; after all, if the Chinese government has all your information already, what’s the point of detoxing from TikTok? Just ask the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang Province in Western China. The genocide began after President Xi Jingping ordered party officials to engage in an all-out “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and seperatism” using the “organs of dictatorship” and showing “absolutely no mercy,” according to a massive leak of internal Communist Party documents obtained by the New York Times. Of these leaked documents, over 150 of them dealt with “surveillance and control of the Uighur population.” 

In the city of Kashgar, a government technician explained to a New York Times reporter how the system of checkpoints around the city and high definition cameras could let the government compile information on specific individuals. The correspondent was even shown an example of a government file, which contained “photo, home address and official identification number of a woman who had been stopped at a checkpoint on a major highway. The system displayed details of her education, family links, recent visits, and travel routes around the city.” China created a system of segregated surveillance, whose purpose is to compel Uighurs to “submit to monitoring and data collection,” in a wider effort to wipe out the Uighurs culture and transform them into obedient, secular citizens who will never challenge the Communist Party. The issuing of identification cards to Uighurs also means that they will have to turn over their movements and location in order to buy food, gasoline, phones, computers, and sugar. The Chinese government’s surveillance program amassed some 68 billion records on Uighurs in Kashgar alone. With this large amount of information at the Party’s disposal, it becomes only a matter of arresting individuals and sending them off to what the government calls “re-education camps” in order to break the Uighurs of their culture, religion, and individuality. 

Almost 1 million people are currently being beaten, tortured, and brainwashed in Chinese Communist Party concentration camps. An internal Party memo leaked to the BBC states the following rules: “Never allow escapes, increase discipline and punishment for behavioral violations, promote repentance and confession, make remedial Mandarin studies the top priority, encourage students to fully transform, and ensure full video surveillance coverage of dormitories and classrooms.” Uighur inmates are rewarded points for their “ideological transformation and compliance with discipline” which determines whether they get to contact their family or be released from the camp. 

Former inmate Orynbek Koksybek described his time in the camps as “seven days of hell…My hands were handcuffed, my legs were tied. They threw me in a pit. I raised both my hands and looked above. At that moment, they poured water. I screamed. I don’t remember what happened next. I don’t know how long I was in the pit but it was winter and very cold. They said I was a traitor, that I had dual citizenship, that I had a debt and owned land.” Omir Bekali was “forced to stand at a wall for five hours at a time. A week later, he was sent to solitary confinement and deprived of food for 24 hours.”

 When Mr. Bekali was finally given food, his only choice was to eat the pork and alcohol provided to him by the prison guards (both forbidden in Islam). Mr. Bekahli also strapped him into a “tiger chair,” a device that clamped down his wrists and ankles. They also hung him by his wrists against a barred wall, just high enough so he would feel excruciating pressure in his shoulder unless he stood on the balls of his bare feet.” Inmates who denounce their Islamic faith and culture are rewarded, while those inmates that refuse are beaten, deprived of food, and thrown in solitary confinement or outdoor pits. 

The inmates who showed promise are taken to less heavily guarded camps where “internees wake up at dawn, sing the Chinese national anthem, and raise the Chinese flag” every morning. Next, internees learn red songs like “Without the Communist Party, there is no New China” and are educated on how “the indigenous sheep-herding Central Asian people of Xinjiang were backward and yoked by slavery before they were ‘liberated’ by the Communist Party in the 1950s.” Finally, they finish their days with their evening meal, but not before being ordered to give their thanks for their meal: “Thank the Party! Thank the Motherland! Thank President Xi!”

What is happening to the Uighur people right now is an example of how the Chinese Communist Party harnesses people’s information for their own exploitation. The U.S. continues to let the Chinese government profit off a piece of malware on customers’ phones worldwide, with many of its users ignorant to the unspeakable human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims. What can you do? Start by being an ally and deleting TikTok from your phones. The Chinese government, like every other government on Earth, gets its tax revenue through its state owned enterprises and by leveling taxes on private businesses, transactions and customs, all of which are utilized to get the app on to your phone.