Tag Archives: privacy

Count the Ticking TikToks

The summer has been eventful for ByteDance, the owner of the rapidly growing social network TikTok. First, the government of India banned the application from distribution in the country due to concerns that the Chinese government is accessing user data. Then, a number of US companies warned employees to remove TikTok from their work phones. Most recently, US President Donald J. Trump threatened to ban TikTok in the US.

Into this maelstrom has stepped Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella with an offer to purchase the US business of TikTok. Nadella has earned a reputation as a savvy operator. He has restored Microsoft’s growth with smart bets on various types of business software, and a strong push to move the users of various applications, including the company’s lucrative Office products on to the online Office 365 version. Nadella has also remade the image of the swaggering giant as a kinder, gentler, more thoughtful company.

Image of Satya Nadella by Brian Smale

Microsoft’s purchase of TikTok would be Nadella’s riskiest bet to date. If Beijing, in fact, views TikTok as a crucial asset for influencing US political and social discourse, it could attempt to put backdoors into the software and service. Microsoft would need to work hard to extricate them, and they could result in TikTok’s being shut down anyway.

Also, with TikTok, Microsoft would enter the politically fraught world of social-content moderation. Microsoft has assiduously avoided political controversy, but TikTok would inevitably force Nadella to enter that arena in one way or another. For example, critics have loudly complained that TikTok censored videos of recent Hong Kong protests, citing that as evidence of Chinese government control. One can imagine similar discontent, due to slights — real or perceived — arising among any number of causes, particularly at either extreme of the US political spectrum.

TikTok’s present valuation $5 billion has critics warning that Microsoft is about to overpay. That is one of many things that could halt the deal altogether — valuation, government intervention, and fresh revelations of spying on users being just a few.

Yet the logic of the acquisition is clear. TikTok is under threat of closure by the US federal government. It’s hard to imagine that Microsoft will pay its full valuation price. For ByteDance, this may offer a graceful exit from a business that it realizes will only create more problems. So, Nadella may be making a smart bet — one with less to lose and more to gain than others realize.

Microsoft would increase its market presence by simultaneously acquiring both a social medium and an application popular with the younger crowd. It has long pined for more of the under-25 group, and TikTok may fulfill that aspiration most clearly and cleanly. Also, TikTok, a kinder, gentler social network than Facebook and Twitter, aligns culturally with Microsoft’s carefully groomed image.

The platform is designed to encourage discovery and consumption, but not to fan the flames of extremism. That does entail algorithmically controlling content more carefully and spreading new content more slowly than Facebook and Twitter care to. To date, however, moderation has been a lesser problem on TikTok than on other platforms and, due to its design and mechanism, is likely to remain so.

With TikTok would come a large and growing pool of user-generated video data for training Microsoft’s artificial intelligence (AI) engines. In theory, if Microsoft can continue to grow TikTok’s user base, its advertising benefits to Microsoft may be enormous. Microsoft’s cash flow would benefit from the added diversity of the advertising revenue and potentially of another rapidly growing source: social advertising. To put this into perspective, Amazon’s fastest-growing revenue stream, of late, has been advertising sales on its powerful eCommerce platform.

The purchase’s major benefit to Microsoft and the US public may be the ability of US consumers to continue to use an innovative platform for free expression and creativity after rescuing it from the quicksand of politics. Yes, we must remain vigilant in limiting government spying (which, let’s be honest, both sides engage in) and restrictive business practices (in which China is clearly the worst offender). But ultimately the potential of such technology as TikTok is to soar above partisanship and divisiveness to let people connect and create.

Certainly, social networks have created their fair share of problems for society, and TikTok is not a perfect vessel. People will find ways to abuse its potential. For now, however, Microsoft’s purchase of TikTok would, in a rare win-win, benefit Microsoft, TikTok’s users, and society.

And just as the US learned from India’s ban, India now needs to learn from it. China’s National Intelligence Law of 2017 requires all of its companies and citizens to ‘support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work’. If China decided to launch more aggressive moves against India, it could have its companies intercept private communications, shut down key services, or even sabotage infrastructure. This is why the US State Department launched the Clean Network program: to purge Chinese companies from US infrastructure. This applies to telecoms carriers, cloud services, undersea cables, apps, and app stores.

Removing Chinese-developed infrastructure will take time. But India can surely take a page out of the US State Department’s book and require companies such as Xiaomi, Haier, Oppo, Vivo, Oneplus, Huawei, and Motorola to sell their Indian products to local players. Companies such as Reliance, Mahindra, and Tata have the capability and funding and could win in the same way as Microsoft.


Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow, Labour and Worklife Program, Harvard Law School, US, and co-author of the forthcoming book, From Incremental to Exponential: How Large Companies Can See the Future and Rethink Innovation.

This piece was first published here.

License for embedded image can be found here.

On Tech, Was India Naive?

The Chinese government banned Facebook in 2009. And even Mark Zuckerberg — despite having a wife of Chinese origin; learning Mandarin; and doing public relations stunts such as jogging in the smog-filled streets of Beijing to say how much he loved China — was not able to have it change its policy. Zuckerberg even went to the extent of creating new tools to censor and suppress content — to please the communists.

But the Chinese were smarter than he was. They saw no advantages in letting a foreign company dominate their technology industry. China also blocked Google, Twitter, and Netflix, and tripped up companies such as Uber. Chinese technology companies are now among the most valuable few in the world. Facebook’s Chinese competitor, Tencent, eclipsed it in market capitalization in November 2017, passing the $500-billion mark. Its social media platform, WeChat, enables bill payment, ordering taxis, and booking hotels while chatting with friends. It is so far ahead in innovation that Facebook is desperately trying to copy its features in the payment system it added to WhatsApp. Other Chinese companies such as Alibaba, Baidu, and DJI, have also raced ahead. Huawei has become a global threat with its 5G technologies and deep government links.

The protectionism that economists have long decried — which favors domestic supplies of physical goods and services — supposedly limits competition, creates monopolies, raises costs, and stifles competitiveness and productivity. But that is not a problem in the technology world. Over the Internet, knowledge, and ideas spread instantaneously. Entrepreneurs in one country can easily learn about the innovations and business models of another country and duplicate them. Technologies are advancing on exponential curves and becoming faster and cheaper, making them affordable to every country. Technology companies that don’t innovate risk going out of business because local start-ups are constantly emerging to challenge them.

Chinese technology protectionism created a fertile ground for local start-ups by eliminating the threat of foreign predators. The government selected what companies it could best control and gave them the advantage.

China actually learned some of its tactics from Silicon Valley, which doesn’t believe in free markets either. The Valley’s moguls openly tout the need to build monopolies and gain an unfair competitive advantage by dumping capital. They take pride in their position in a global economy in which money is the ultimate weapon and winners take all. If tech companies cannot copy a technology, they buy the competitor.

And then there is data, the most valuable of all technical resources. Data analysis enables everything from micro-targeting of advertisements to voter suppression and population control. Mobile applications are the greatest spying devices ever invented, monitoring not only their users’ interests but also their locations, purchasing habits, connections, political opinions, and health.

That is why the top technology companies from both East and West, the monopolists and predators, see India as the juiciest of all spoils. It has a massive market ripe for the picking, and data gold mines. India has also been naïve in its data protection policies and support for domestic innovation; it bought the old propaganda about the need for open markets.

There are some big differences, though, between the Chinese and American companies that are vying for the Indian markets. The Chinese government largely controls the actions of its companies, feeds them resources and technologies it has stolen from the West. It gives them every unfair advantage so that it can steal more and subvert democracies. Silicon Valley companies want more data so that they can sell more products. They may show bad judgment and cross ethical lines, but they aren’t playing geopolitics or endangering the sovereignty of free nations.

This is why the Indian government’s decision to ban TikTok and other Chinese companies makes sense. What was long holding Indian entrepreneurs back was the lack of Internet connectivity and mobile phones. When these became pervasive, the foreign companies stepped in. Eliminating some of that competition will give Indian entrepreneurs a chance to build world-changing technologies. These will benefit not only India but also the rest of the world, which is desperately looking for an alternative to Chinese influence and domination.

This is not to say that, without broad data and privacy protection policies, Indian technology companies won’t abuse the data that they gather. Such policies are needed as well. But the day politicians talk of breaking up companies such as Inmobi or Jio because they have become global monopolies and gained too much power will be the day of recognition that India has taken strides forward. Right now, what the country has to worry about is the dire threat from the East.

Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program of Harvard Law School and the author of The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future.

This article was republished with permission from the author and can be originally found here.

We Did Not Agree to Sell Our Souls to Facebook and Google

“Cars will soon have the Internet on the dashboard. I worry that this will distract me from my texting,” joked the satirist Andy Borowitz in a biting takedown of humankind being overrun by technology. Technology entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa talks to Chidanand Rajghatta about his latest book Your Happiness Was Hacked and the problem of too much tech

You were among the early proponents of deleting apps such as WhatsApp from phones over privacy issues. Is it fair to identify it as a culprit in spreading social disharmony in India? After all, even phones and emails can spread rumours.

In India, in particular, WhatsApp is a threat not only to privacy and happiness, but to democracy itself. With the introduction of the groups feature, WhatsApp made its technology the most effective way of spreading misinformation and hatred. If anyone makes a public speech that stirs communal disharmony, they would be held criminally liable. Yet, on WhatsApp, they are protected by the so-called end-to-end encryption. This is not a misuse of technology, it works exactly as designed. All that WhatsApp’s owner, Facebook, cares about is getting information about its users and selling ads. It has no conscience and will do anything it can to keep its users addicted to its technology. The end-to-end encryption doesn’t protect WhatsApp users from being spied on by Facebook, by the way.

How did you go from technology evangelist to technology sceptic?

In my last book, Driver in the Driverless Car, I posited that we finally have the ability to solve the grand challenges of humanity, everything from shortages of food and energy to education and health. Yet if we make the wrong choices and don’t share the technology in an equitable way or become too dependent on technology, we could end up destroying humanity itself. When writing this, I thought that the dangers were at least a decade or two away. I never imagined that social media would so rapidly facilitate genocide in Myanmar, the rise of demagogues in the US and Europe, and cause depression and suicide in the US. Yet, these are the things that my friends in Silicon Valley have enabled.

Is bailing out/unplugging/disconnecting even for a few hours (except during sleep) even feasible?

The answer is different for every one of us. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in the novel Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But everyone should answer these questions: Does it make you happier or sadder? Do you need to use it as part of your life or work? Does it warp your sense of time and place in unhealthy ways? Does it change your behaviour? Is your use of it hurting those around you? If you stopped using it, would you really miss it?

Are there good, peer-reviewed and peer-accepted studies to show that technology makes us sadder?

For the book, we reviewed hundreds of studies done by academics all over the world. There are conflicting findings, particularly in studies that companies such as Facebook have funded. We tried to present a balanced picture and share our own experiences.

Are those who feel that technology has enriched and enhanced their lives fooling themselves?

No, technology has enriched and enhanced our lives. Imagine what life was like before we could instantly communicate with each other and share photographs with family members. It becomes a problem when you have too much of it. It becomes like an addiction to alcohol or tobacco — moderate usage will not do much harm, but when you go overboard, it will kill you. In the US, for example, children are generally addicted to technology from an early age. If you look at the data, you see that teenage suicide rates are up and depression has become an epidemic. This is the problem — too much of a good thing.

The last thing I am suggesting is turning our backs to technology. I would have a hard time living without it. Yet, I have learned the damage that it is doing to me and have to work hard on living a balanced life. It is all about doing things sensibly, we can’t run from technology or switch it off for too long! It is the addiction and overdose that is doing the harm. It is tearing families and societies apart now because of the way it is being used.

Didn’t we give up privacy the moment we signed up for a cellphone with a signal and an internet connection with an IP address?

No, we did not agree to sell our souls to Facebook and Google and to let them know our innermost thoughts. These companies have gone much too far. I would choose to pay a small fee to both companies every month if they stopped spying on me and compromising my privacy. I don’t want them knowing what I say to my children or my wife.

This article is reprinted here with the author’s written permission.

While Facebook Faces the Music, Maybe it is Time to #DeleteWhatsApp

It is time to hold all the social media companies accountable for their massive breaches of our privacy WhatsApp differentiates itself from Facebook by touting its end-to-end encryption. “Some of your most personal moments are shared with WhatsApp”, it says, so “your messages, photos, videos, voice messages, documents, and calls are secured from falling into the wrong hands”. A WhatsApp founder recently expressed outrage at Facebook’s privacy policies by tweeting “It is time. #deletefacebook.”

But WhatsApp may need to look in the mirror. Its members may not be aware that when using WhatsApp’s “group chat” feature, they are susceptible to the same type of data harvesting and profiling that Cambridge Analytica employed on Facebook. WhatsApp goes further, making available mobile phone numbers, which can be used to accurately identify and locate group members.

WhatsApp groups are designed to enable discussions between family and friends. Businesses also use them to provide information and support. The originators of groups can add contacts from their phones or create links enabling anyone to opt in. These groups, which can be found through web searches, discuss topics as diverse as agriculture, politics, pornography, sports, and technology.

Researchers in Europe demonstrated that any tech-savvy person can obtain treasure troves of data from WhatsApp groups by using nothing more than an old Samsung smartphone running scripts and off-the-shelf applications.

Kiran Garimella, of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, in Switzerland sent me a draft of a paper he co-authored with Gareth Tyson, of Queen Mary University, UK, titled “WhatsApp, doc? A first look at WhatsApp public group data”. It details how they were able to obtain data from nearly half a million messages exchanged between 45,754 WhatsApp users in 178 public groups over a six-month period, including their mobile numbers and the images, videos, and web links that they had shared. The groups had titles such as “funny”, “love vs. life”, “XXX”, “nude”, and “box office movies”, as well as the names of political parties and sports teams.

The researchers obtained lists of public WhatsApp groups through web searches and used a browser automation tool to join a few of the roughly 2,000 groups they found—a process requiring little human intervention and easily applicable to a larger set of groups. Their smartphones began to receive large streams of messages, which WhatsApp stored in a local database. The data is encrypted, but the cipher key is stored inside the RAM of the mobile device itself. This allowed the researchers to decrypt the data using a technique developed by Indian researchers, LP Gudipaty and KY Jhala. It was no harder than using a key hidden atop a door to enter a home.

The researchers’ goal was to determine how WhatsApp could be used for social science research. They plan to make their dataset and tools publicly available after they anonymise the data. Their intentions are good, but their paper has exposed the flaws of the application, and how easily marketers, hackers, and governments can take advantage of the WhatsApp platform.

Indeed, The New York Times recently published a story on the Chinese government’s detention of human rights activist, Zhang Guanghong, after monitoring a WhatsApp group of Guanghong’s friends, with whom he had shared an article that criticised China’s president. The Times speculated that the government had hacked his phone or had a spy in his group chat; but gathering such information is easy for anyone with a group hyperlink.

This is not the only fly in the WhatsApp ointment that this year has revealed. Wired reported that researchers from Ruhr-University Bochum, in Germany, found a series of flaws in encrypted messaging applications that enable anyone who controls a WhatsApp server to “effortlessly insert new people into an otherwise private group, even without the permission of the administrator who ostensibly controls access to that conversation”. Gaining access to a computer server requires sophisticated hacking skills or the type of access that only governments can gain. But as Wired wrote, “the premise of so-called end-to-end encryption has always been that even a compromised server shouldn’t expose secrets”.

Researcher Paul Rösler has said: “The confidentiality of the group is broken as soon as the uninvited member can obtain all the new messages and read them… If I hear there’s end-to-end encryption for both groups and two-party communications, that means adding of new members should be protected against. And if not, the value of encryption is very little”.

WhatsApp also announced in 2016 that it would be sharing user data, including phone numbers, with Facebook. In an exchange of emails, the company told me that it does not track location within a country and does not share contacts or messages, which are encrypted, with Facebook. But it did confirm that it shares phone numbers, device identifiers, operating system information, control choices, and usage information with the “Facebook family of companies”. That leaves open the question as to whether Facebook could then track those users in greater detail even if WhatsApp doesn’t.

Facebook and its “family of companies” are being much too casual about privacy, as we have seen from the Cambridge Analytica revelations, harming freedom and democracy. It is time to hold them all accountable for their massive breaches of our privacy.

This article is posted her with the permission of the author.