Trump wants to ban TikTok to keep Americans' data out of China's hands, but Microsoft and Oracle's track records suggest they could turn it over to the US government instead (MSFT, ORCL)
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Trump wants to force the sale of TikTok to a US tech company in order to keep Americans' data out of the hands of the Chinese government. But the app's most likely buyers, Microsoft and Oracle, play a massive role in helping the US government spy on its own citizens. The companies provide a range of technologies to law enforcement agencies, including facial recognition software, cloud computing services, and "predictive policing" algorithms — many of which rely on social media data. Amid mounting evidence that these tools can exacerbate racial disparities and growing pressure on tech companies to reexamine their relationships with US law enforcement, the potential sale of TikTok raises questions about Microsoft and Oracle's roles in America's own surveillance apparatus. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
The future of TikTok, and the data of its more than 100 million American users, now hangs in the balance as President Donald Trump seeks to force its sale to an American tech company. The reason? Trump claimed in two executive orders targeting TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, that the Chinese government could force the Beijing-based firm to share user data with its intelligence agencies so it can spy on Americans. Trump isn't alone when it comes to concerns about giving China a backdoor into the phones of US diplomats, military officials, or politicians. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's campaign, the Democratic and Republican parties, various federal agencies, and nearly every branch of the US military have all banned its use, also citing national security. The president has gone a step further, however, arguing that everyday Americans are equally at risk and a US firm would be a better steward over their data, presumably keeping them safer as a result. But as America faces a reckoning with racially biased police, policing practices, and policing technology, the tech industry's cozy relationship with law enforcement is being called into question. In many cases, those companies are supercharging the same authorities that have been accused of targeting Black and indigenous people, immigrants, Arab-Americans, and other groups that have borne the brunt of state violence. Beijing may be able to blackmail a corporate executive or high-ranking government official, but for many Americans, tech-enabled police forces pose a far more imminent danger, and TikTok's most likely buyers have a strong track record of cooperating closely with law enforcement — sometimes by analyzing the very social media data they could soon be tasked with safeguarding. Government ties Microsoft and Oracle have stood as the frontrunners to buy TikTok largely because of their history of cooperation with law enforcement. In a press conference earlier this month, Trump specifically cited Microsoft's existing "high-level" security clearances from its work with the US government. Microsoft and Oracle both declined to comment for this story. Both companies have a long history providing technology solutions to US military and law enforcement agencies of various stripes. Oracle got its start in 1977 when the CIA contracted cofounder Larry Ellison to build it a database. Microsoft started building the New York Police Department's notorious surveillance network in 2009. They've also been reliable partners to their government counterparts even when that involved legally or ethically dubious work. Microsoft gave the NSA access to its users' encrypted messages and Skype video calls as part of the notorious PRISM program unearthed by Edward Snowden in 2013. Ellison defended that same NSA surveillance dragnet, calling it "essential." Eleven years earlier, Ellison argued in a 2002 New York Times op-ed that the US should create "a national security database combined with biometrics, thumb prints, hand prints, iris scans." As of the present day, Oracle and Microsoft have developed and provided exponentially more powerful surveillance technology to law enforcement. In a July report, The Intercept's Michael Kwet provided a detailed look into the suite of Microsoft services deployed in the name of public safety. Some notable ones include:
The NYPD surveillance network mentioned earlier, which in just four years amassed two billion license plate scans, 15 million police reports, 33 billion public records, and footage from 9,000 surveillance and 20,000 body cameras — all of which feed into a "predictive policing" algorithm to identify where future crimes might occur. The Microsoft Advanced Patrol Platform, an internet-of-things enabled patrol car that syncs various data sources to offer real-time intel to officers, and which the company hopes to pair with AI-powered "pattern matching" to help them identify "bad actors." AI analysis of police surveillance data via its Azure cloud computing service, which cities like New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and Detroit use.
Oracle, through its "Social-Enabled Policing" tools, aims to "leverage the power of social media" to help law enforcement with "the prevention, detection and solving of crime and disorder." Its flagship product, an AI-powered data analysis platform, collects more than 700 million messages daily from over 40 million social media websites. Microsoft and Oracle have largely flown under the radar compared to companies like Palantir that market law enforcement partnerships more explicitly. Because Microsoft and Oracle primarily sell software that can also be tailored for non-law enforcement uses, and work with many third party partners and contractors, identifying whether or how extensively they're involved with a given agency's IT infrastructure can be difficult. Scrutinizing surveillance In recent years, surveillance technologies and the manner in which agencies use them have come under more intense scrutiny for potential civil rights and civil liberties abuses. Facial recognition technology, predictive policing algorithms, and other AI-powered tools have frequently been shown to reinforce racial, gender, and other biases, and even led to a wrongful arrest in Michigan earlier this year. The FBI's use of an internet surveillance program was ruled unconstitutional; US Customs and Border Patrol and other agencies have paid private companies for people's personal data to avoid obtaining warrants; and police departments have used everything from social media posts to Ring doorbell cameras to spy on and profile Black Lives Matter protesters in ways that evoke the FBI's controversial COINTELPRO program targeting Black activists from the 1950s to 1970s. Following George Floyd's killing, and amid aggressive and at times violent responses to protesters by law enforcement in Seattle (near Microsoft's headquarters), more than 250 Microsoft employees sent a letter to the company's executives asking Microsoft to end its contracts with police departments. Shortly after, Microsoft said it wouldn't sell facial recognition technology to police until stronger civil rights protections are in place, but the company's commitment left major loopholes for its other services that enable police to use facial recognition and other surveillance technologies. Yet even aside from providing IT infrastructure, Microsoft has assisted law enforcement by consistently complying with requests for user data, agreeing to such requests in 80% to 90% of cases since it began publishing data in 2013. (Oracle does not publish comparable reports). Both companies refused to answer questions about how they currently handle government requests for data, how they ensure lawful uses of their technologies or handle cases where law enforcement agencies misuse the tools, and how they would protect US TikTok user data if they acquired the app. With TikTok's rise as a platform for anti-racism activists and law enforcement's increased use of social media to surveil protesters in the US, some Americans may have more to fear with their data in the hands of Microsoft or Oracle than they do with China's ByteDance.Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Why Pikes Peak is the most dangerous racetrack in America
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On Day 2 of WIRED’s virtual conference, hacker Matt Mitchell cautions that law enforcement routinely trawls...On Day 2 of WIRED’s virtual conference, hacker Matt Mitchell cautions that law enforcement routinely trawls social media to surveil protestors.
Trump Jr. joins Triller and lashes out against TikTok, claiming the app is 'something that could haunt your kids forever'
Summary List Placement Donald Trump Jr., the eldest son of President Donald Trump, on Friday posted...Summary List Placement Donald Trump Jr., the eldest son of President Donald Trump, on Friday posted on video-sharing app Triller, peddling unsubstantiated theories that TikTok is turning on users' cameras and microphones even when the app is closed, arguing TikTok is "something that could haunt your kids forever." "When you have an app like TikTok where the Chinese government could be turning on your kid's camera, turning on your kid's video, listening in, turning on their mic at any random time not just when they're using the app," Trump Jr. said in his first video on the platform, as first reported by NBC News. "This goes so much further," he continued. "Having access to all your photos and contacts and emails and the spyware that's there. I mean this is something that could haunt your kids forever." Representatives for TikTok did not immediately return Business Insider's request for comment on Saturday. The social media platform, however, has repeatedly denied allegations that it shares American's user data with Chinese officials. Criticism over TikTok's Chinese ownership has been months-long and bipartisan. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, last month said that an American company needed to purchase the app so that it was not subject to Chinese law. Late last year, all branches of the US military banned TikTok usage on government devices. And in July, the campaign of Democratic nominee Joe Biden banned its staffers from using TikTok on both its work and personal devices, Bloomberg reported. In August, the president targeted TikTok in a series of executive orders, the first barring any US company from doing business with its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, effectively requiring a sale by September 15. The second executive order, signed on August 14, aimed to invalidate ByteDance's purchase of TikTok in 2017. The company has sued the Trump administration, claiming it did not provide the company due process in enacting the August 6 executive order. The Chinese government at the end of August changed rules that would require TikTok to gain its approval before it sells the algorithm that powers the app, reportedly stalling talks from companies like Microsoft and Oracle, and delivering the latest snag as the company works against President Donald Trump's executive order ordering its sale. According to Business Insider, Triller reportedly found China's new rules more favorable for it to purchase TikTok, as it could use its existing technology to power TikTok. The company said it entered a $20 billion bid to purchase TikTok's US, Australia, New Zealand, and India operations, in partnership with London-based investment firm Centricus, according to the report. A spokesperson for ByteDance denied that the company had not had discussions with Triller, and said it would "not have any in the future," Business Insider previously reported. Also in his Friday video on Triller, Donald Trump Jr. argued a Chinese company couldn't be trusted to own TikTok because he said, the nation's government lied about the novel coronavirus. "They lied to the world about its virulence," he said. "They lied to the world about the way it was transmitted. They minimized the threat to the world. You think they're going to be good with your data? You think they're going to not weaponize your kids' data eventually against them?"SEE ALSO: The Trump administration is looking at banning more Chinese apps, as TikTok sale talks stall Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Inside London during COVID-19 lockdown
The Boston City Council unanimously approved an ordinance that will ban the purchase and use of facial...The Boston City Council unanimously approved an ordinance that will ban the purchase and use of facial recognition technology by city officials, including the police department. Among the reasons for issuing the ban, the ordinance cited "racial bias in facial surveillance" and the potential for surveillance tools to damage public trust in government. Councilor Michelle Wu specifically referenced the false arrest of Robert Julian-Borchak Williams, a Black man living in Michigan. Detroit police arrested and interrogated Williams after facial recognition software incorrectly identified him in robbery surveillance footage, according to a New York Times investigation released this week. The incident is believed to represent the first instance of facial recognition leading to a false arrest in the US. Local bans on facial recognition, like this Boston ordinance, will undercut big tech efforts to instate facial recognition reform at the federal level. In response to heightened public scrutiny, Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft suspended or terminated the sale of facial recognition services to law enforcement; the companies also advocated for federal regulation of the technology. But while Boston issued an outright ban on government use of facial recognition, the tech companies envision federal reforms that would instead set standards as to how the technology can be used. Amazon, for instance, has advocated for regulation that would set accuracy thresholds for facial recognition software. Given the current political climate, we believe the Boston ordinance will precipitate bans in other large US cities, undercutting big tech efforts to make facial recognition more palatable through regulation. Increased scrutiny on government use of facial recognition could lead to big tech players discontinuing sales of facial recognition to law enforcement. While Amazon and Microsoft left the door open to resume selling facial recognition software to law enforcement, IBM, which reportedly wasn't making much money from facial recognition software sales in the first place, decided to terminate its program altogether. The public was already skeptical of facial recognition technology, and we expect it will become even more so following recent events — in 2019, 50% of US adults said they wouldn't trust tech companies to use facial recognition responsibly, and 27% said the same about law enforcement agencies, according to Pew Research. Because of these conditions, we expect at least one other big tech company will follow in IBM's footsteps. This would leave players like Clearview AI, Cognitec, and Vigilant Solutions to provide facial recognition to law enforcement — even though these players have lower public profiles, they actually held a larger share of the market compared to the big tech players, according to The New York Times.Join the conversation about this story »