FRIDAY FOCUS: Former CIA Officer Warns About Dangers of TikTok

Popular social media app linked to Chinese Community Party has potential to track user data and control flow of information

  • Published In: Columns
  • Last Updated: Feb 24, 2023

y Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

TikTok has been in the crosshairs in recent months as at least a dozen states, including Wyoming, banned the social media app from all state-owned electronic devices and networks. Critics cite security risks related to the popular social media app’s ties to the Chinese Communist Party and its potential to influence foreign governments among its concerns.

With over 1.5 billion users, TikTok is now the sixth most popular social media app, according to company data, with the average user spending around 90 minutes per day on the platform. The app, which is owned by the Beijing-based ByteDance, also boasts the highest engagement rate per post with the majority of users in the 19-29 age demographic. 

Former CIA officer and cybersecurity expert Robert Jenkins warns that the popular TikTok app poses broader risks beyond the ability for the Chinese Communist Party to collect user information. (Courtesy photo from Robert Jenkins) 

One of the app’s most popular features is its “for you” personalized feed that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to  customize user content based on personal preferences. It also allows content creators to share one to three-minute videos with millions of users around the world and to engage in communities focused on common interests.  

But critics like retired CIA officer Robert Jenkins warn that the app’s sophisticated algorithms have the potential to track users’ data on their devices, including their contacts, images and site usage and preferences. Along with collecting data, the larger concern for Jenkins is how the app can act as a gatekeeper of information, limiting one’s access to a wide breadth of knowledge and alternative points of view.

Jenkins, 61, has made a career out of cybersecurity. With degrees in history and business administration from Dartmouth College and Pennsylvania State University, Jenkins has served as an intelligence officer with the United States Army and currently is chief executive officer at Dark Forge Solutions, LLC, a C-suite strategic advisory firm.

Jenkins recently moved from Virginia to Wyoming, where he sits on the board of directors of CyberWyoming, a Laramie-based nonprofit offering cybersecurity outreach programs for citizens, business and workforce development.

Jenkins recently shared his concerns about the popular social app with the Wyoming Truth. What follows are excerpts from the conversation.

Let’s start with the big question: Is TikTok gathering personal user information, and does it pose a national security threat?

Jenkins: I don’t know for a fact that the Chinese government is collecting information with TikTok. But what I can tell you is that the Chinese government is almost certainly capable of collecting information with TikTok if they choose to do so. I’m not accusing them of doing this, but I’ll just say because of the nature of the regime, I would not be stunned to find out they were collecting information. And that’s what Congress and a lot of state legislatures are discussing. Is there a little bit of China paranoia? Yeah, there’s probably some of that in there. But, you know, this could be justified…All of the social media is collecting behavioral information on their users. Could that reveal vulnerabilities? I suppose it’s possible, but it’s an awfully huge net and not very targeted. I’m not sure if there’s a national security aspect of that, unless the Chinese government is using the TikTok app to literally lay down a cyber exploit on your phone.

If security is not necessarily a concern, what alarms you about TikTok? 

Jenkins: I think the greater concern is the way in which TikTok and other apps can limit your range of information, deliberately showing you certain things and not showing you other things as a means of controlling the narrative or shaping public perception…Technology, in general, is capable of altering perception that can impact mental health. It also can impact reality. For example, when I talk to middle school kids, I tell them to imagine that an alien just dropped down in your yard. They have come to Earth for the first time, and they don’t know anything. So,  you take them out at night, and there’s a crescent moon in the sky. At that moment, this alien’s perception of the moon is that it looks like a crescent. In order for you to make the alien understand there is a lunar cycle, you would have to take them out for the next 28 nights for them to see the various stages of the moon. If you only chose to show them that one day, then that is how that alien will perceive the reality of the moon. And, so you’re actually in control, determining what data this individual sees. And that becomes his or her reality.

It’s a different sort of shaping. It’s shaping society’s perception on particular issues. It’s not what I would call a traditional national security issue…But all TikTok and all of these social media platforms are definitely capable of shaping the perception of the user. I think that’s really probably the most important aspect.

How does information control impact young people?  

Jenkins: Well, I mean, it’s profound, right? Because these are formative years. And you know, there’s a great saying by Winston Churchill, which I love. He said if you’re 20 and you’re not a socialist, you have no heart. If you’re 40 and you’re still a socialist, you have no brain. The point is that most every adolescent wants to see a world with social justice…That’s the age where you want to go out and have a profound change to sort of make the world a better place. But here’s the catch. What is that? What does that better place look like? And what tools are at your disposal to make it happen? When you start breaking it down into those aspects, now it becomes really interesting, because if you’re focused on artificial intelligence and machine learning on shaping adolescents, you’re going to shape perceptions of utopia [based] on what you want it to be. These adolescents who are going to be your soldiers, if you will. Look at any of the cultural movements: the Nazi Party movement in the 30s, or the cultural revolution in China…a lot of the actions were driven by youth, who were basically, I will call them, indoctrinated or proselytized into the government’s ideology, and then they became the muscle.

What can be done to counter that? 

Jenkins: The only thing I can think of is to keep an open mind. There’s a concept called anchoring that we all do. We have our associations and socio-economic cultural bias through which we look at all issues. To the extent to which you can, get out of that lens to see other perspectives with an open mind…that’s the only way to do it.  

Any other concerns about the impact of apps like TikTok on young people?

Jenkins: I’m sure you’ve read that Facebook can cause depression. I was talking to middle schoolers about this exact same thing. No one goes up on Facebook and posts, “Hey, I had a really crappy day. Let me tell you all about it.” People don’t do that…So, you’re getting this filter and getting the perception that they want you to see. Every engagement that you have, every conversation, you are selectively choosing data that you want to share, and unfortunately, a lot of people look at that. Everybody has good days and bad days, and they’re looking at all these feeds saying, “Wow, this person has good days all the time. My life is crap.” And so, there’s some psychological impact. You know, there’s been some studies on that increasingly, on Facebook. [TikTok] is a similar phenomenon. People are deliberately putting up a dance video that they got right. They’re not putting up the five hours of practice when they’re falling over trying to get the dance moves. This is the same impact.

Would you let your own children use TikTok?

Jenkins:  Yes. Preferably under supervision…

At what age? 

Jenkins: Maybe 16. Definitely 18.

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