G/O Media may get a commission
multiple (and U.S. Secretary of State lawsuits ) have shown us, the issue isn’t as much with the data that’s being Mike Pompeo as it is with where that data is being stored. In December, Chinese authorities hoarded a piece of legislation that would give them a certain degree of unfettered access to data stored on servers based in the country or being transmitted through China-based networks. officially enacted
Despite TikTok’s repeated
that it stores the data of its U.S. base on servers based locally and in Singapore, and despite the complete lack of available evidence that any U.S. user data is being stored in mainland China, pundits have been insistence the company’s China-based parent company, Bytedance, as reason enough to be concerned. pointing to
Looking at that alone, I can see why the Microsoft buyout makes sense. Replacing a Beijing-based parent company with one based in Seattle would pacify any paranoia about servers based in China. But that’s a scheme that only works if the wacky world of data makes any goddamn sense. When an app beams your data from your phone into TikTok’s (or some advertiser’s) line of sight, there’s a
array of detours that it’s taking to get there at all—and those partnerships get nearly infinite if your data happens to cross international borders somewhere along the way. even more tangled
This metaphorical rat king can be partially untangled by
of an app yourself, but that really only tells half the story, if that. Unpacking the rest of it, ironically enough, takes two things that the current U.S. administration can’t get enough of: business savvy and inspecting the back end . charts
For the sake of this story—and to give our government officials the benefit of the doubt—let’s assume that officials in China can’t wait to get their mitts on any American’s data, from any app, and aren’t afraid to tap any data-brokering companies within their borders in order to do so. And since this is what I picture whenever Pompeo brings up the
of Chinese authorities, here’s what’s going on one end of our chart: imminent threat
If you’ve ever experienced the
of sites like Wish.com, then you’re probably familiar with the ways some Chinese corporations have made a name for themselves in targeting consumers overseas with utter absurdity that they don’t really need but will almost definitely buy. And generally, where buyers go, marketers follow: While recent numbers are hard to come by, cheap crap found that 50 adtech orgs based in mainland China were cutting deals based around targeting consumers in the States. And because the U.S. ad-targeting industry has been effectively a 2017 report by Facebook and Google, that means Facebook and Google are swallowed to strike up the occasional multibillion-dollar deal with data brokers and ad aggregators based across the region. pretty motivated
So if we’re going on the
argument that any data stored on any China-based server is potentially up for grabs by China’s government, let’s just assume, hypothetically, our little Chinese leader at the end of our graph is pulling data from one of those 50 China-based adtech firms. Sifting through all 50 would get real boring (and also real scary) real fast, so I’m zooming in on one player named Adtiger—which sells ad space from American companies to Chinese brands, among other things—partially because of its data-mining oft-parroted with major tech players in the West, and partially because here at Gizmodo, we partnerships a good tiger. stan
If you wanna play along at home and get super bummed out, I’ll be using red arrows to show which players are passing your data where. Much like TikTok, I couldn’t find any trace of the Adtiger team beaming our details back to state authorities, so it’s worth noting that this relationship (and, thus, our charts depicting potential data-sharing) is entirely hypothetical.
Since this is a data-mining partnership we don’t really have proof of (to my knowledge), we’re gonna make that arrow dashed, while the real, tangible, also-scary relationships we know it has are marked with a straight, solid line. Keep that in mind, because shit’s going to get
really confusing pretty soon.
Regardless of whether it’s to
from regulators or competitors, third-party vendors like Adtiger are usually pretty tight-lipped about where cover their ass their data comes from. Luckily for us, Adtiger spilled some of these specifics in the it put out for any curious investors looking to take a bite from its recent massive tome . multimillion-dollar IPO
As it describes its business, Adtiger’s primary role is connecting China-based marketers with the sorts of platforms and apps we know and love here in the U.S. For the most part, this doesn’t mean working directly with, say, Facebook or YouTube; instead, it aggregates user and ad data from large players that are
with these respective companies. chummy
And since these details are from Adtiger’s own documents that they sent to their investors, it’s worth assuming this relationship, y’know, actually exists. So a solid line it is. Meanwhile, the key aggregators they list off—with names like Onesight and Meetsocial—are
also based in China, which means that on this very fun, very hypothetical train we’re riding, any data that they’re getting their hands on can also be beamed back to these national authorities, legally speaking.
Real Life. Real News. Real Voices
Help us tell more of the stories that matter
Become a founding member
Adtiger’s IPO specifically names Meetsocial as its go-to for siphoning Facebook data, Onesight for Twitter data, and Vidoads for data from Google properties like YouTube or Google Search.
Like these players, Snap also has a
local partnership—with the China-based search giant Baidu, in this case—that Adtiger uses to tap into the long-running in the U.S. millions of Snapchatters
for its China-based marketers lists Adtiger as a primary partner, I figured it’d be best to just add a direct line there, too. On top of that, Adtiger also lists off a direct line to Google’s ad-serving systems, along with more direct lines into Yahoo’s and TikTok’s own networks. own site
Ironically enough, this means that, in a sense, the Trump administration’s worst nightmares about offshore data sharing are kind of reality—only it has nothing to do with whether the platform is based in the U.S. or anywhere else. The entire clusterfuck of digital dollars that fuels our internet has essentially flattened state lines by promising people that they can tap into any consumer, anywhere they want—for a price.
The layers of intermediary partners mean that even if TikTok (or Google, or any other major tech player) swears up and down that it keeps any user data here in the U.S., that point is mostly moot. As soon as a foreign intermediary gets its hands on the data, any liability—or really, any control—is largely out of a U.S.-based company’s hands. Hell, even if you try to wedge a company like Microsoft in there, the point is
still moot, because it has a in Shanghai that helps local brands massive footprint to target “high-end” consumers in America and abroad. use Bing
So, summing it all up, this means that when you open your phone to, say, Facebook, or Twitter, or YouTube, and see an ad that Adtiger (or any of its intermediaries) helped plop onto your screen, this is pretty much the basic path your data might go down—only multiplied by about 50 or 100, or by however many of these companies there are, and there are
many. The wonderful world of digital advertising is black boxes inside of black boxes inside of black boxes. This means that there’s a good chunk of people who work at these companies who likely can’t tell you exactly where your name, your phone number, your precise location, or other personal data might actually end up. built on
This is an iPhone 11 Pro, but feel free to close your eyes and imagine your phone on the other end of this. Graphic: Raul Marrero (Gizmodo
If you’re wondering what
this eensy-weensy corner of the digital economy is getting their hands on, the only vague clue Adtiger offers is that it’s siphoned from these partners’ respective APIs, which, as they put it, gives them a nearly infinite funnel of “real time” data about the American audience that might’ve glossed over (or clicked) on a given ad. kind of data
Figuring out what
data is being passed along which network is just as much of a pain in the ass as finding those networks in the first place. The good news is that these sorts of APIs are usually public, which means you can just freely peruse them at your leisure, as one does—and I promise TikTok’s own data-sharing practices are far from the worst ones here.
In light of all this utter bullshit (which, I can’t stress enough, is a fraction of a fraction of what’s actually going on behind the scenes), you might wonder whether the Trump administration has actually put any thought at all into its planned TikTok ban, or a possible ban of the
popular apps that came here directly from the Chinese market. That’s one of the proposals officials floated this week as part of the State Department’s proposed many, many , which is supposedly meant to “secure our data from the CCP’s surveillance state,” along with other foreign entities. Clean Network
For the past few months, I’ve been taking a lot of shit for my stance that TikTok isn’t the only problem here—but I really don’t think that it is. Banning TikTok (or shifting it under American ownership) i
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe