In this episode of American Thought Leaders, I sit down with Geoffrey Cain, an award-winning journalist, technologist, and author of “The Perfect Police State: An Undercover Odyssey into China’s Terrifying Surveillance Dystopia of the Future.”
“Everybody was constantly being watched by an artificial intelligence system, which was called the IJOP,” says Cain, referring to a pre-crime surveillance platform that the Chinese Communist Party launched in Xinjiang to predictively police the population.
Cain recently testified before the U.S. Senate about TikTok and why he believes the social media app’s troubled emergence in America, its shadowy corporate structure, and its connection to China’s security and data laws make it a unique national security threat.
“It is a disaster waiting to happen because TikTok, though the company denies it, is fundamentally obligated to follow … the laws that were created by the Chinese Communist Party,” Cain says.
Geoffrey Cain, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Thank you for having me, Jan.
I’ve wanted to have you on the show ever since you put out “The Perfect Police State,” which is an absolutely amazing book and we’ll definitely talk about this. Before we go there though, just recently you were in the U. S. Senate giving testimony about social media and national security issues, specifically around TikTok and how it functions in the U.S. and around the world. So tell me, what did you find?
Oh, so much. The problem with TikTok is that it is a national security threat to the United States and to countries outside of China. It is a disaster waiting to happen, because TikTok, although the company denies it, is fundamentally obligated to follow the laws of China, laws that were created by the Chinese Communist Party.
So, here’s how TikTok works. It’s an app that is extremely popular among Generation Z users. It’s like the next Facebook or the next wave of social media and anyone can go on there and create a short 12 or 15 second clip of them dancing to music or showing their cat. You can load up celebrities and see what they’re up to. The app itself seems quite harmless, and there’s nothing about it that at first glance would look particularly nefarious or evil. But beneath the surface, there is a lot going on.
TikTok was originally created by ByteDance, a Chinese company based in Beijing. It had been created by one of the major figures deeply involved in Chinese artificial intelligence technology. It received enormous amounts of funding from a major Silicon Valley investment firm, Sequoia Capital, a company that was trying to expand in China. It wasn’t until about 5 or 6 years ago that TikTok was created by this company ByteDance through an expansion into the American market.
They had acquired a fellow Chinese company that was developing a music app that was getting popular in America called Musical.ly. ByteDance decided to acquire it and used it to create what we now know as TikTok. Now, here’s the first big red flag, and there are many red flags. But the biggest red flag is that upon this acquisition, TikTok did not notify the U.S. government.
There is a body called CFIUS, which is the Council on Foreign Investment in the United States. This is the body that is charged with reviewing all sorts of Chinese investments in America, and not just Chinese, but also foreign investments in America that might pose some kind of national security risk. CFIUS has reviewed investments in semi-conductors, in surveillance cameras, and military weaponry and components. Anything that could potentially pose a risk to the security of America has to go through a review by CFIUS.
Now, TikTok, upon entering America, had these grand plans to use data. TikTok is essentially a data-scooping machine. It’s getting your face, your voice, your behavior, your movements, and it’s learning about you. TikTok has not said much publicly about its algorithms, but like all social media platforms, these systems are extremely profitable, because they gather so much data and they use that data to sell ads to consumers.
The first problem here is that TikTok entered the American market trying to appeal to Gen Z, to the next generation, to the celebrities, and trying to build up the cat videos and the dancing videos. This was a kind of mask that covered up some of the darker realities going on underneath the surface. The big problem is that this is a company that is based in China, and upon request, it is a company that will be responsive to Chinese law.
And yet, they’re expanding in this massive way in America. There wasn’t even a CFIUS review at the beginning. That should sound alarm bells. Why did TikTok decide not to do that review? It is as if they snuck into the market and placed their software in the hands of the next generation.
Let me jump in right here. Okay. The fact that they didn’t disclose this for review with CFIUS, doesn’t that somehow create an opportunity to do a CFIUS review? What is the status of this right now?
Back in 2020, the Trump Administration initiated a CFIUS review. Donald Trump wanted to get TikTok banned. So, TikTok challenged this review in court, and challenged some of the decisions. The goal was going to be to probably sell TikTok to Oracle. This would be a forced sale, and Oracle was lining up as the main buyer. This sale was never initiated. The Biden Administration stepped in later, but didn’t completely kill the review.
For the last year, TikTok has been under a CFIUS review, but they have been very quiet about it. It’s not clear what’s going to come of it. Currently, there are conversations happening between TikTok and Oracle, the American company. I can’t say for sure now whether it’s going to be sold to Oracle or sold to an American company. According to TikTok, there will be some kind of agreement with the U.S. government to ensure that this kind of data sharing with China won’t be possible. That’s their claim, and I don’t totally believe it, but we’ll get into that.
There are two areas that I see are hugely problematic, maybe it’s already obvious to our viewers. Number one is that every conceivable data point in these highly sophisticated computers that we call smart phones is being gathered by this app. That’s number one. And this company is subservient to the CCP. The CCP, whatever advantage it can take, we know it will. So, this is not a good recipe. That’s one. The second part which I didn’t see covered as much in your testimony, is that they also decide what you can see or not see.
And they are very non-transparent about it. This could also be in the realm of what we call ephemeral experiences. In other words, there isn’t someone actually watching what is being served up to people and somehow tabulating it. It’s gone forever, and we won’t know what our kid or our person working in the national security establishment is seeing as they’re using it. So these are the two areas that jump to mind.
Oh, yes. I agree completely. One of the big problems is that the TikTok algorithm does decide what you see. These algorithms in all the social media platforms are very opaque and are seen as protected intellectual property. They don’t want that information to leak out, because they say it will damage their business. But in the past, TikTok executives have admitted that TikTok has been used to suppress bad news coming out of China.
There was a TikTok executive who testified before the British Parliament saying that news about the Uyghurs in Xinjiang was being suppressed at one point. There are also other examples. Back in 2019, there was a leaked moderation guideline. It showed ByteDance instructing the global TikTok moderators, including in America, to look around for material that might look bad.
That included anything that shows poverty, slums, poor people, and so-called ugly people. It literally was saying these kinds of things. The moderation guidelines said, “You need to suppress this kind of material. We only want to see beautiful people on here who are happy and nice and great to look at and attractive.
This is an example of abusive censorship because not only are we discriminating against the poor and people who don’t look super attractive, this was being used to tow the party line, to suppress news about the Uyghurs, and to suppress news about human rights abuses in China.
Let’s jump to the data gathering and what exposure that creates. Please give me the picture.
Here’s the problem. The Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping has repeatedly said that it wants to become a global leader in artificial intelligence, and that AI is going to be a major pillar of Chinese military power and surveillance power. Xi Jinping has made it clear that he’s trying to build this new society that will be driven by this total surveillance state that will know everything that’s going on within China, and potentially outside of China too.
This is where the TikTok and the ByteDance connection becomes extremely problematic. Under Chinese law and under the Chinese Communist Party, any executive, whether you are at TikTok, the American version of the app, or you’re at Douyin, the Chinese version of the app, there’s not going to be a separation between those two. The Chinese Communist Party will see TikTok fundamentally as a Chinese company and one that needs to report to the Chinese Communist Party.
With the National Intelligence Law of China and National Security Law, these are some very terrifying and totalitarian laws that require people in China to take part in intelligence operations upon request. So let’s say something hypothetically, and indeed this may have happened, but we can’t say for sure because it would be all secret. But hypothetically, let’s say the Ministry of State Security or the Ministry of Public Security, two very powerful bodies in China, issue a demand to Chinese employees of TikTok who are based in China to hand over the data of certain people.
These could be Hong Kong dissidents, these could be American military commanders, it could be anybody who might be of interest to the Chinese Communist Party. Those executives are required by Chinese law to hand over the data. It doesn’t matter if TikTok says, and this is how TikTok responds, they always say, “We are an American company, we’re separate, we’re based all over the world, we’re not the same as the Chinese company ByteDance.” But they also admit that they have employees in China and these employees, as we know, are subject to the harsh and brutal realities of the Chinese Communist Party.
Please tell me about what is called the master admin.
Yes. This was a part of audio files that were leaked in Buzzfeed, the news website. There were 20 audio files that were taken from various meetings between ByteDance and TikTok software developers. They were just talking about the problems inherent in having Chinese executives who are overseeing them. In one of these audio recordings, one of the executives was talking about this master admin, who is an unnamed figure.
We’re not sure who this person is, but it said that this person is somebody in Beijing who has access to all TikTok data, all global data. TikTok denies that this is true. They say that there is no master admin, and that there is nobody with this title, but it’s clearly on the audio recording. These are internal meetings and somebody is talking about a master admin. That’s very strong evidence right there.
If you go back through TikTok’s testimony before the Senate, they have always testified that the Chinese company does not have access to American data, and that there is a wall between them. This evidence right here contradicts what they’ve been telling us under oath. This is truly devastating for them, because if they are found to be lying under oath or withholding information under oath, that could put TikTok in big legal trouble. There are a number of executives who have testified, and we’ll see exactly what’s going to happen in the future.
But the evidence that keeps coming out contradicts what they say under oath in front of U. S. senators. So, this revelation about the master admin is the big one. There were also audio files on there, which you could hear people talking about how they had to go through Chinese executives and Chinese developers in China to figure out how the data of Americans was being observed and used. We could go on and on about this, but that Buzzfeed report was particularly devastating. TikTok has come out full blast trying to deny that this is the case, but the audio files are there.
One thing we know about AI is that you want to have maximum data to feed into AI to teach it, and to have it to function. This is what I’m seeing from what you’re telling me. We have 80 million American TikTok users. That’s a pretty large dataset and this unlimited data coming from the phone 24/7, because these apps are also collecting when they are not open. And we have the Chinese Communist Party, which is deeply interested in developing AI. You might think there is a prerogative on their side to use that information, given how they function.
Without a doubt, there is a huge prerogative under the Chinese Communist Party to do whatever it can to get that data. We all know that the Chinese Communist Party is a ruthless organization. It is vicious and authoritarian. They have put 1.8 million people in concentration camps in Western China, which is the biggest internment of a minority since the Holocaust. We’re talking about very serious crimes against humanity and genocide here. We know that the Communist Party is not going to care if there is a small legal wall that separates the Chinese ByteDance company from the American TikTok company.
We do hold that to a high standard and we have access controls.
Senator, I think it’s important that I address the broader point in your statement.
So are you willing to answer the question, yes or no? It is a yes or no question. Are they part of your corporate group or not?
Yes, Senator, it is.
YesIt’s all in the fine print, isn’t it?
It is absolutely in the fine print, and that has been TikTok’s strategy. When they come under criticism, when they’re under the microscope, their strategy has been to deflect, to distract, to confuse people and to use fine print and little technical slight-of-hand to try to distract people from the reality and the truth. Even in my testimony, a TikTok public relations officer responded on Twitter, pointed out all these little technicalities like, “Technically ByteDance is not in China. The parent company ByteDance is technically in the Cayman Islands, where we’re technically not reporting to a Chinese company.”
But that’s absolutely missing the point, that’s just taking my testimony out of context, and trying to smear me and discredit me with these little technicalities. It doesn’t address the underlying reality that TikTok reports to the Cayman Islands company, and the Cayman Islands shell company also owns ByteDance, the Chinese company. They’re all a part of the same corporate group, and there’s no fundamental separation between them.
What is the relationship between these large companies like Huawei, ByteDance, and TikTok with the Chinese Communist Party?
In China, there is no separation of private business and the public government like in the United States. Here, Google does not have to report to the American government, and Tesla does not report to the White House. They might have their relationships and their lobbying, but the White House cannot call Apple and tell them what to do and what not to do. Apple even built in a feature that prevented the FBI, for a long time, from breaking into phones and gathering data.
So, there’s a clear separation between government and private business, which is quite healthy. In China, it is not the case at all, and that is absolutely a line that does not exist. A company might look like it’s private on paper, and it might have all the legal fixtures in place that give the impression that ByteDance or Alibaba is a separate entity from the government, but the Chinese system is so different from America.
In America, we have separation of powers, and we have three branches of government. In China, everything is ruled by the party. It’s simply the Communist Party. There is one single party that runs everything. All laws are underneath the party, and the judicial system is underneath the party. It’s not rule of law, it’s ruled by the party. That is why the Chinese Communist Party is just so threatening and forceful when it comes to forcing these companies to follow its dictates.
We’ve seen in recent years, with various cases of the Chinese Communist Party cracking down on tech companies. Jack Ma, the head of Alibaba, had disappeared for quite some time. Others were being sentenced and arrested. There was a lot of action in this area because the Chinese Communist Party did not want companies going outside of its dictates. They wanted to remind private companies, “Ultimately, you work for us.”
Yes. And that was actually a very interesting moment. I mean, one of the analyses I heard was, “Well, you got a little bit too independent there, Jack.” Right?
With that whole crackdown, the Chinese Communist Party was just concerned about the wealth being amassed by these private technology tycoons. These tycoons were amassing their own followings in China, they were perhaps even rivaling the Chinese Communist Party in many ways. But ultimately, the Chinese Communist Party is the one in charge and they want to have access to that AI, to that data, they want to have access to those private technologies being developed by ByteDance and WeChat and Alibaba. So, if they do get too far away from the party core, which is Xi Jinping and the Politburo, they will always reach out and try to bring them back in, back into the center, back into the fold.
There’s people that believe that TikTok should be banned. It almost was, as we mentioned earlier, and then there are others that say, “Hey, it’s a free market, that’s unfair, unreasonable to do. It’ll have other negative downstream consequences.” Where do you stand on this?
My stance is that TikTok should at minimum be sold to an American company. We cannot have major Communist Party-connected companies in China running massive social media platforms in America. It is the Trojan horse, it’s the mole, it’s everything that you do not want in a modern democracy. It’s also a new problem, because we now live in this age of smartphones and software. This kind of problem did not exist in the past in the Cold War, we were more concerned about the hardware aspect of it. So, the missiles being pointed at each other and the potential for nuclear war, it’s still a possibility, it hasn’t gone away, but there’s this added element now of the way that we use software and social media and the way that it exposes us to major foreign threats from hostile powers who are looking to undermine us from the inside.
Well, it’s interesting that you say that. I just want to briefly mention the work of Dr. Robert Epstein, who basically has looked at how certain Big Tech companies, multiple different ones, are able to influence public opinion in many cases without the people realizing themselves that they’re being influenced. Some of the work that he’s done has shown that you can, for example, for someone that’s undecided, this isn’t for people that already know exactly what they want to do, you can shift how someone will vote without them even being aware that they’ve been shifted by doing basically extensive, double blind tests on how people’s preferences change and so forth.
This work, to me, is incredibly disturbing. And by the way, he also shows that it has been done by American companies in different contexts. And I’ll mention this, one of the most stark examples, and I don’t think the company even realized at the time that it was doing something like this, but Facebook at one point basically sent out, “Hey, come out and vote.” Basically to the Hispanic community and it worked, it increased the voting.
And they actually publicized this saying, “Look, we’ve been really effective at doing this.” Of course, the reality is that a political actor or someone who wants to act in a political way might say, “Oh, look, this group in particular, votes a particular way. Let’s get them to come out because we want a particular political outcome.” So now, let’s forget about America for a second. The reality of this kind of power, which is all in these ephemeral experiences, where people get things projected to them, no one will ever know that they saw it except that person, is now potentially in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. Now, that to me is a wild threat.
It is absolutely wild. It’s a threat that we haven’t taken seriously enough until now. I do think that as Americans, when we’re dealing with hostile foreign powers, we tend to be naive. And that’s because we forget that being an American and growing up in New York or Chicago, life for you is quite different from life for somebody in Russia or China or somewhere that has always been underneath this authoritarian government and might not have the same outlook on life. We just have to remember that not all of the world is a liberal democracy, that there are different systems around the world and that we can’t simply trust TikTok coming from this authoritarian background, within an authoritarian country to simply, automatically follow American laws as they are written. It’s just not how the world works, it’s not how the system works and it’s something we need to be mindful of as we deal with the TikTok problem.
There is this fine print and in this case, you’ve shown how the fine print exposes a really crazy reality, I would argue. But with the Chinese Communist Party, I’ve never seen any evidence that they’ve been interested in caring what that fine print is, if they can get away with it. The WTO finds that it’s illegal, that there’s this required technology transfer when American companies come into China. They’re required to transfer their technology to be able to get market access. That is illegal, and I didn’t even realize this until I read it in your book, that this is actually an illegal act by the WTO. But has China cared? No. How many American companies have agreed to transfer their intellectual property? Hundreds. I is billions upon billions of dollars of intellectual property.
Yes, billions and billions of dollars. This is something that the Chinese Communist Party has mastered. It is looking for ways to extract technology and intellectual property from companies that want to do business in China. The Chinese government advertises China as having a major consumer market, with its 1.2 billion people. It’s been growing wildly, there’s a lot of money, a lot of profit to be made. But here’s the catch, once you come to China, if we decide that you have to do it, you’re going to have to transfer that IP to a local Chinese company. Just so many American companies have tried operating in China over the years, major companies, including Google, but they’ve ultimately been shown the door. It’s as if they try to open the door to China, and compete with local companies. Maybe sometimes they’re idealistic and believe that they’re trade or their economic engagement with China will open the way to reforms and potentially democracy in the future, when the rising middle class will want to rise up and change the government.
These are all a fantasy, none of this has happened at all. Google is perhaps the best example of this repeatedly happening in China because Google originally tried to enter the Chinese market, they left voluntarily, but also they were harassed and shown the door by the Chinese government. They were out of favor compared to Baidu, which is the Chinese equivalent. But the experience of Google and the experience of major American tech firms trying to enter China is that, “Look, China doesn’t want your values. The Chinese Communist Party doesn’t want you to open up a major search engine that’s going to be open and hopefully uncensored in China.” They don’t want any of that, they want you out of there. And that’s the major lesson that we’ve learned in the past decade or so trying to engage with China, that we become more like China rather than they become more like us, which is a point that you’ve made very well.