Your cell phone may be a spy in your pocket, sending personal information to the Chinese government which then feeds disinformation back to you through TikTok and other social media apps, according to retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding.
Spalding, former chief of the China, Mongolia, Taiwan Division at the Pentagon and Senior Defense Attaché to China, served as senior director of strategic planning for the National Security Council from 2017 to 2018. He is an expert on the military threat posed by China.
“The information that’s collected about you, particularly from apps like TikTok, is just about everything that every sensor on that device [collects],” Spalding said in a March 10 interview with Jan Jekielek, a senior editor at The Epoch Times and host of “American Thought Leaders.”
The data is primarily used to determine which advertisements to place in front of you but can be used for other purposes, particularly if collected by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), according to Spalding.
That makes individuals, businesses, and even the country vulnerable to data surveillance, productivity loss, and Chinese influence campaigns.
U.S. corporations and government officials may be particularly vulnerable to data surveillance, according to Spalding.
“Say you’re a J.P. Morgan executive,” Spalding said.
“Somebody can track you and who you’re talking to. All they need to do is provide that data to an intel analyst and they can present a fairly good picture of what that person is doing. So it’s a competitive intelligence problem for business.”
The threat is magnified when data is collected on elected officials or government staff members, Spalding said.
“Who’s going to the White House today? Who are they meeting? What are they talking about? These are the things that you can gather from this [data],” Spalding said. “It’s happening every single day because I see it in my business.”
The problem illustrates the dilemma posed by having an open society. On the one hand, we enjoy a lot of free computer applications and services, Spalding said, but there’s a catch.
“Well, it’s not free, and the cost to the country is in this ability to leverage your data for nearly anything.”
Through data surveillance, whoever collects the data from our cell phones knows us better than we know ourselves, Jekielek said in summary.
Daily social media use averages 147 minutes per person per day, according to Statista.
American teens spent much more time than that using social apps in 2021, according to a study by Common Sense media. For teenagers, the average screen entertainment time was over 8.5 hours. For tweens, it was 5.5 hours.
All of that adds up to a significant loss of productivity for adults and a huge misdirection of attention for young people, according to Spalding, who said that result is intentional by the Chinese government, which owns a share of TikTok’s parent company. Children and adults watch videos on the app for hours, drawn in by algorithms that predict the content that will appeal to each user.
By contrast, use of the app Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok, is limited to 40 minutes a day by the CCP, Spalding said.
“So if you ask a kid in China, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ They’ll say, ‘I want to be an astronaut,’” Spalding said because the content on Douyin is geared toward education.
But if you ask a child in the West the same question, they’ll say they want to be a social media influencer, he said.
“So it’s not just about taking data,” Spalding said about the Chinese government’s use of TikTok. “It’s also about reducing productivity.”
The third strategy in CCP’s information war is influence, said Spalding. The official stance of the party is that liberal democracy is a fiction created by the American people to destroy the Communist Party.
“That’s what they say in Document No. 9,” he said, referring to the party communique that warns against Western values like freedom of the press and judicial independence in an effort to reinforce one-party rule.
The CCP uses social media to insert its messaging into the minds of Americans, according to Spalding. “China is trying to convince the world that it has a better system.”
“It doesn’t stop at TikTok. They’re on Twitter, they’re on Facebook. They’re on all their platforms and all of ours.”
While China has become a significant trading partner and offers much to the world, the relationship of its government to the United States is not benign, said Spalding.
“Rather than having this debate in the United States about what we call China, why don’t we just look at what the Chinese Communist Party calls America?” he said.
“They call us an enemy. So whatever we think, we have to respect the fact that that’s what they believe.”