Data privacy protection: Biden drags his feet on China, TikTok and Confucius Institutes

The silly dances kids post to TikTok should be the least of their parents’ worries. But they could become a lasting nightmare. 

TikTok, a social media app used by more than 70 million Americans, recently updated its terms and conditions to allow the app to collect biometric data from the phone on where it’s installed. Many social media apps harvest some type of biometric data, but TikTok’s privacy infringement is much more concerning. 

TikTok is collecting everything, including facial scans and audio fingerprints to identify the user. TikTok offers no justification as to why it needs access to this information. (It could be threatening or maybe the communists are just curious about you.)

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company that has been accused of collecting American data and handing it over to the Chinese communist government and military. Chinese law requires companies to hand over data on demand. Unlike in America, the lines between private business and the government are blurred. 

TikTok’s threat to Americans is so concerning that the Pentagon forbids its staff from downloading the app, as did the TSA and all branches of the military. 

That’s a start, but the data privacy of millions of Americans is still in play. 

Biometric information could be used to create “deep fake” videos. This spring, one Belgian video producer put out highly realistic “deep fakes” of Tom Cruise showing him laughing, walking and talking. It was scary how real it seemed. Even his hair moved perfectly. Consider what could be done with your voice and image. Couple that to wide Internet distribution and you can sense a looming disaster.

Former President Trump saw TikTok as a threat. He ordered a ban on the app in the United States unless it sold a majority of its shares to an American company and cut all ties with the Chinese military. That ban singled out TikTok and a few other Chinese-owned apps, including WeChat, which could also provide personal data to China. 

President Biden, overturned Mr. Trump’s executive order. One national security attorney told The New York Times that Mr. Biden’s executive order was “a bit of a troll to the Trump administration approach.” 

Mr. Biden issued a new executive order that calls for a review that will establish “clear intelligible criteria” to evaluate the national security threat of apps tied to foreign governments. Government speak for “we’ll get back to you.” And by that time the data will be collected in Beijing.  

It’s not the only issue where Mr. Biden has been dragging his feet on China. 

Mr. Biden has also failed to hold American schools accountable for allowing Chinese indoctrination through Confucius Institutes. These “Institutes” are Chinese government-funded programs at universities. Several hundred K-12 schools also offer similar Confucius Classrooms programs. 

According to the National Association of Scholars, they “provide China an easy way to monitor American professors, pressure universities to kowtow to China’s preferences, and keep an eye out for useful information and technology.” Universities have been a hotspot for Chinese spies to steal information. Technology is often developed with U.S. government funding.

Mr. Trump tried to gain oversight into these Confucius programs through an executive order, but Mr. Biden scrapped that one with no discernible reason. 

While China is in our phones and classrooms imagine a future where the Chinese government will use your personal information in ways we have not yet imagined. 

President Biden needs to get serious in protecting our data. Or explain why he isn’t interested.

• Richard Berman is president of Berman and Co. in Washington, D.C.

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