The TikTok Ban Is Security State Protectionism

U.S. intelligence agencies and data giants aren't about to let someone who isn't them invade your privacy. PLUS: So much for those Niger bases!

The TikTok Ban Is Security State Protectionism
If the Five Eyes aren't happy, you might not be happy, either.

Edited by Sam Thielman

A FUNNY THING happened as the House of Representatives moved in swift, bipartisan fashion to ban TikTok on the grounds that it puts American users' privacy at risk from a malicious state actor. Rep. Mike Turner (R-Oh.), the House intelligence committee chairman, gave a closed-door presentation in December, WIRED's Dell Cameron reported last week, urging the wholesale renewal of the mass-surveillance authority known as Section 702 by citing the need for the FBI to warrantlessly query the NSA's 702-derived databases for information tying pro-Palestinian demonstrators to Hamas. 

It's as distilled an example as any of how inherently abusive Section 702 surveillance is to Americans' privacy (and data security). The purpose of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), of which Section 702 became a component in 2008, is to ensure that U.S. intelligence doesn't use its immense powers of intrusion against political dissenters without credible evidence of ties to a foreign power. But Section 702 permits, among other things, the FBI to sift through NSA-collected intelligence without any credible restriction. After 702 became a tool to spy on Black Lives Matter protesters, a U.S. Senator, and even a "judge who alleged civil rights violations by a municipal chief of police," Turner is merely making the subtext explicit. 

And for quite a while, Turner—who, I repeat, is the chairman of the House intelligence committee, which oversees the intelligence agencies—has sought to ban TikTok. Among his arguments is that China can manipulate TikTok's algorithm to push propaganda on Americans. Meanwhile, as Dell reports, Turner's non-public presentation derived from conflating two separate protests and a piece of baseless innuendo asserting a Hamas connection by a right-wing reporter turned GOP congressional candidate—the implication being that counterterrorism tools should be used to dry up the finances and ultimately the freedom of Americans who oppose Israel's genocide in Gaza. Whoops!

But of course it's not a Whoops. Protecting the Security State and Silicon Valley's aspirations to a monopoly over U.S. data is the point of the TikTok ban. The point of giving Section 702 its latest lease on life is to protect what the Security State does with the fruits of that monopoly. Whenever U.S. legislators talk about all the nefarious uses to which the Chinese can put TikTok-collected data, I think of the nefarious uses to which Turner seeks to put 702-collected data.

Surveillance capitalism from the start united the interests of the intelligence agencies and the Silicon Valley data giants. You should read Shoshana Zuboff's book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism for a more thorough accounting of this, but collecting, tracking, commodifying and arbitraging internet data at scale became a new economic frontier at the end of the 20th century. The NSA understood intuitively what an enormous opportunity this economic shift represented. With the data giants employing methodologies traditionally associated with spycraft, all the U.S. surveillance panopticon needed to do was burrow into the ones that Silicon Valley had created, something it exploited the 9/11 era to accomplish. It's also why the CIA's investment arm sunk $2 million, early, into the datamining heavyweight Palantir. 

There is a revolving door between the data giants, the intelligence agencies, and the Pentagon—and I know, because some of those who revolve through it are sources of mine. More fundamentally, surveillance capitalism makes it extremely difficult to disentangle economic interests from "national security" interests. To which any good student of imperialism would observe: Duh.

TikTok represents a complication. Its tremendously successful entrance into the American market creates credible foreign competition to U.S. social media companies. And unlike those U.S. social media companies, the data American TikTok users generate does not easily flow from ByteDance servers into NSA repositories, either through cooperation via server mirroring or through siphoning data in transit. (I know this is a hedged construction, but I use it because my experience compels me to hold out the possibility that the NSA secretly penetrates ByteDance.) In a user-operations context, Meta, reflecting the widespread and longstanding western conflation of Palestine and terrorism, censors pro-Palestinian content, whereas TikTok, which doesn't emerge from that same political context, doesn't. Hence the fix that Congress' ban promotes: ByteDance should sell TikTok to a U.S. company. And, wouldn't you know it, Goldman Sachs nepo baby turned Trump Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is putting together a bid

Your data is under a far more immediate and enduring threat than the one posed by TikTok and (whatever its relationship actually is with) the Chinese government—a threat that, Ken Klippenstein observes, U.S. officials on close reading frame as a hypothetical threat, rather than a manifested one. In states that outlaw and punish people seeking medical care through abortion, Meta and Google are cooperating with law enforcement to provide evidence against the company's users who may seek to end a pregnancy or aid those who do. The Anti-Defamation League, similar to Turner, seeks to have anti-Zionist student activists investigated for material support to terrorism, which will involve linkages derived through FBI warrantless access to the 702 troves. And of course there's a legislative effort underway, supported by the Biden administration as well as its GOP critics like Turner, to reauthorize Section 702 without a single substantial civil-liberties concession. 

The objection, in other words, isn't about what TikTok does. It's about who gets to do the kind of thing that TikTok does, and who doesn't. American Exceptionalism, in practice, insists that America is the one that acts—and is never the one that is acted upon. We should think of the TikTok ban and the 702 reauthorization as two sides of the same surveillance-capitalist coin. 

And let’s just pause on the Mnuchin thing for one second, because it shows how American Exceptionalism blinds its practitioners. As Public Citizen's Robert Weissman tells the AP, how blatantly corrupt would the U.S. find it if another country threatened to block a major U.S. company's access to its markets unless the company submitted itself to foreign ownership, and a waiting buyer was an investment group assembled by that country's former finance minister?! 

HUGE NEWS FROM NIGER this weekend: the Nigerien junta is voiding its predecessor's permissions for the U.S. to operate on its soil. You may remember—from, for instance, page 269 of the paperback edition of REIGN OF TERROR—that the CIA and the Air Force both established drone bases in Niger at great expense, reflecting how Niger has become an important staging ground for U.S. Africa Command's counterterrorism operations. So much for that. And this repudiation comes days after a senior U.S. diplomat and the AFRICOM chief traveled to Nigerien capital Niamey for meetings with the new military government! We'll see whether U.S. troops actually leave—the Guardian writeup linked above notes that the junta seems to have stopped at the water's edge of demanding that. Guess the junta is deciding how mad it wants to make a superpower that likes to sponsor coups in countries that have stuff it wants!

CALLING ALL FOREVER WARS MASSHOLES! I'll be speaking on a wide-ranging March 29 panel at Hampshire College in Amherst about "U.S. Foreign Policy and the 2024 Elections." I'm excited to say that joining me on this panel will be my friend Van Jackson, whose newsletter you really should be reading, and who is making a rare U.S. appearance now that he lives in New Zealand. We'll be speaking at 5:30pm on Friday the 29th at what the website says is "FPH Building, Main Lecture Hall." Stop by and say hi! 

ANAND GOPAL'S LATEST in the New Yorker is an unforgettable tour through al-Hol, the under-explored prison city of thousands of refugees from the shattered "Islamic State." For what is now the better part of a decade, something like 45,000 people—ISIS bosses, ISIS enlistees, families and children of those who enlisted in the Islamic State, people whom ISIS exploited or tortured, people with no choice but to endure life in the Islamic State and many who represent murkier cases that Gopal powerfully explores—have been prisoners within what Gopal aptly calls a city-sized Guantanamo. There is another one in Syria, known as Roj, where sources of mine tell me another 5,000 people are held. 

Inertia within the victorious U.S.-Kurdish coalition in Syria keeps the camps open. U.S. Central Command and the Pentagon shruggingly assert that other countries should repatriate their citizens from the camps, and in the absence of that, city-sized prison camps are an unfortunately practical solution. In such ways do improvisations become permanent. There are children in this camp who have never known anything but al-Hol. "Many had not heard of Syria, Iraq, America, or even television," Gopal reports. The story of young Raba is especially heartbreaking. 

This is an outstanding piece about a horror in plain sight that we simply choose not to think about. I have to admit feeling shamed by the fact that I haven't tried to report from al-Hol or Roj. Gopal's piece would be worth it just for the story of Jihan, a young woman from Homs whom Gopal meets in the camp who never wanted to have anything to do with the Islamic State. Her husband found the agony of the Syrian civil war too much to bear, and eventually he took them to Raqqa. When I say above that Gopal powerfully explores the "murkier cases" of who is and isn't ISIS in the camp, Jihan is whom I mean. I've known enough intelligence analysts, reporters and editors for whom a description like "her husband was ISIS and she went with him, turning her back on her family" is enough to conclude that Jihan is ISIS and move on. Gopal presents Jihan instead as a human being in her full complexity, and in the process exposes the moral bankruptcy of reducing people to their metadata. 

Accordingly, Gopal observes that many of his interlocutors within "the ideologically sundry society of al-Hol" don't fit the portrait commonly presented of ISIS in the West, whereby internet-addicted teenage boys radicalize themselves by watching ISIS videos between bouts of beating off. 

As I met Abu Hassan and dozens like him in Al-Hol, various archetypes revealed themselves: the rebel who, closing his eyes and seeing the ghosts of dead relatives, is bent on revenge; the poor worker suffering the humiliations of a profoundly unequal society, then suddenly commanding fear and respect; the teen-ager looking for excitement who calculates that, by growing a rugged beard and sporting a bandolier, he might impress the neighborhood girls.
When religious radicalization occurred, it usually happened after a person joined ISIS. Membership in a militant organization can be a powerful socializing experience, rewiring one’s ideas about reality

My emphasis. Without spoiling THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN, let me just say that the pro-social aspects of terrorism are an extremely powerful and underappreciated motivator amongst the devoted. 

But the thing about having what Gopal calls a "mini-Caliphate" is that it produces the seeds of the next ISIS. Gopal takes us through what we might call an al-Hol neighborhood called the Annex, which holds non-Iraqi foreigners who represent the most hardcore of ISIS die-hards. The Kurdish-led U.S. proxies known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, lacking the manpower to police al-Hol, raid neighborhoods like the Annex periodically. 

Graffiti covered the walls in an array of languages. There was hardly a woman about. As I walked down the main street, I noticed eyes watching me through openings in the tents. Here and there, I saw children: sitting in a sewage ditch, gathered around a well. I approached a pair of boys, one blond and the other with East Asian features. They couldn’t have been more than four or five years old. I asked them where they were from, and the blond boy replied, in stilted, formal Arabic, “We don’t speak to infidels.” As I was leaving, I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder blade and turned to see rocks flying toward me. More boys appeared, eager to take part in the stoning. I ran.

"The authorities are so under-resourced that they tend to treat the entire population as hostile," Gopal continues. Such things are to be expected in city-sized perma-prison camps. Distant defense bureaucrats will shrug and say it's too dangerous to shut al-Hol down, much like they still say about Guantanamo. 

Gopal's functional bottom line in this piece is too eloquent not to quote: "For long periods of time, the iniquities of the Middle East can appear frozen, and, therefore, manageable. A tyrannical government, bankrolled by foreign powers, stifles all political life; a theocracy seeks to commandeer body and soul; an occupying power dispossesses a native population, then subjects it to daily degradations. But at unpredictable moments these injustices erupt into the open—and into our consciousness—through great upheavals, or wanton acts of violence. We then ask where the rage comes from, even though it has been simmering under our noses all along."

MY STUFF! WALLER VS. WILDSTORM, the superhero spy thriller I co-wrote with my friend Evan Narcisse and which the masterful Jesús Merino illustrated, is available for purchase in a hardcover edition! If you don't have single issues of WVW and you want a four-issue set signed by me, they're going fast at Bulletproof Comics

No one is prouder of WVW than her older sibling, REIGN OF TERROR: HOW THE 9/11 ERA DESTABILIZED AMERICA AND PRODUCED TRUMP, which is available now in hardcover, softcover, audiobook and Kindle edition. And on the way is a new addition to the family: THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN