Boundaries in Big Data

The information age is in full flight and with it comes both massive risk and reward.

The information age is in full flight and with it comes both massive risk and reward. The U.S. government recently conducted a surprising national inquiry into the popular social media platform TikTok, where teenagers produce short and often comedic videos. This search, as part of a national security probe to ensure the safety of the technology sector, demonstrates the importance of information security in the modern age and the threat of both foreign and economic interests on individuals living in this unprecedented era of connectedness. Amidst the growing influence of big data, it seems all the more prudent for countries to extend the borders beyond the real world.

Far from an isolated incident, the recent government inquiry into TikTok represents only the latest in a series of national security probes done in conjunction with other Western governments, such as Canada, Britain, and Japan, emphasizing the security of data on their citizens. ByteDance, a Beijing-based internet technology provider, recently merged with the app Musical.ly, based in Shanghai but operated in Santa Monica, California. This merger resulted in the TikTok app, known by more than 90 million users today; the app, though developed in 2017, gained massive popularity in the U.S. in 2018. However, U.S. officials now see the Chinese app as a potential threat to national security, echoing the Huawei scare in the past few years. Huawei, being one of the largest technology companies in China and second only to Samsung in the number of phones produced, has been flagged by the U.S. and its allies for having ties to the Communist Party leadership in China. As a result, nations such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and Japan have already made measures to prevent the company from testing 5G technology requiring access to critical infrastructure. A separate probe by the U.S. resulted in the barring of U.S. companies from using communications technology considered a national threat, presumably aimed at Huawei. These events have shown clear concerns over the growth of technology outside the West.

Given this trend of revolving foreign technological influence around the U.S., it only seems wise to treat information with utmost care, as data security has never been more important than in this highly connected information age. Tik ok, like the great number of other social networking platforms, utilizes data analysis of user behavior and information to filter and personalize a user’s information feed, something potentially troubling for officials in the U.S., who fear the threat of information censoring and the usage of personal data in ways deemed illegal in the states. Though TikTok asserts that its servers and databases are located strictly within the U.S. with backups in Singapore, the potential of foreign influence on the U.S. market has been brought to light by this issue. Thus far, the U.S. has insured control over the hardware used by its citizens, but with the global market and widespread exchange of information, groups within the country relying on foreign investment or under foreign ownership can easily succumb to international interests. Given that technology titans have firmly established themselves as the most valuable firms on Earth, candidates and think-tanks alike have claimed that in terms of raw value, data has exceeded the worth of oil. Big data, or the availability and usage of extremely large and varied data sets, brings about massive profits and massive savings alike, all of which depends on the availability of personal information to influence purchasing power; this same usage can easily be applied, as the government fears, into influencing political views, limiting information flow, and even data theft for the sake of espionage. With all of these concepts being ever more important, yet utterly beyond the realm of the average citizen participating in this system, the role of government regulation over data truly does perform the task of ensuring the security of information that all citizens should be concerned about, but very few can personally act upon.

The recent TikTok probe, then, isn’t really about this one application and its ties to the Chinese government; it represents merely one potential threat within the remarkably large sphere of information usage. However, this event does allow the general public, especially young members of the public sphere, to contemplate their role within this complex system. Today, data represents massive financial value and an equally massive national security risk, and for the sake of all free citizens within the global data network, security done by relatively transparent government agencies will play a crucial and laudable role in the future.

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