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Even if TikTok and Other Apps Are Collecting Your Data, What Are the Actual Consequences?

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By now, most of us are aware social media companies collect vast amounts of our information. By doing this, they can target us with ads and monetise our attention. The latest chapter in the data-privacy debate concerns one of the world’s most popular apps among young people – TikTok. Yet anecdotally it seems the potential risks aren’t really something young people care about. Some were interviewed by The Project this week regarding the risk of their TikTok data being accessed from China.

They said it wouldn’t stop them from using the app. “Everyone at the moment has access to everything,” one person said. Another said they didn’t “have much to hide from the Chinese government”.

Are these fair assessments? Or should Australians actually be worried about yet another social media company taking their data? What’s happening with TikTok? In a 2020 Australian parliamentary hearing on foreign interference through social media, TikTok representatives stressed: “TikTok Australia data is stored in the US and Singapore, and the security and privacy of this data are our highest priority.” But as Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyst Fergus Ryan has observed, it’s not about where the data are stored, but who has access.

On June 17, BuzzFeed published a report based on 80 leaked internal TikTok meetings which seemed to confirm access to US TikTok data by Chinese actors. The report refers to multiple examples of data access by TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, which is based in China.

Then in July, TikTok Australia’s director of public policy, Brent Thomas, wrote to the shadow minister for cyber security, James Paterson, regarding China’s access to Australian user data.

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Thomas denied having been asked for data from China or having “given data to the Chinese government” – but he also noted access is “based on the need to access data”. So there’s good reason to believe Australian users’ data may be accessed from China.

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Is TikTok worse than other platforms? TikTok collects rich consumer information, including personal information and behavioural data from people’s activity on the app. In this respect, it’s no different from other social media companies.

They all need oceans of user data to push ads onto us, and run data analytics behind a shiny facade of cute cats and trendy dances.

However, TikTok’s corporate roots extend to authoritarian China – and not the US, where most of our other social media come from. This carries implications for TikTok users.

Hypothetically, since TikTok moderates content according to Beijing’s foreign policy goals, it’s possible TikTok could apply censorship controls over Australian users.

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This means users’ feeds would be filtered to omit anything that doesn’t fit the Chinese government’s agenda, such as support for Taiwan’s sovereignty, as an example. In “shadowbanning”, a user’s posts appear to have been published to the user themselves, but are not visible to anyone else.

It’s worth noting this censorship risk isn’t hypothetical. In 2019, information about Hong Kong protests was reported to have been censored not only on Douyin, China’s domestic version of TikTok, but also on TikTok itself.

Then in 2020, ASPI found hashtags related to LGBTQ+ are suppressed in at least eight languages on TikTok. In response to ASPI’s research, a TikTok spokesperson said the hashtags may be restricted as part of the company’s localisation strategy and due to local laws.

In Thailand, keywords such as #acab, #gayArab and anti-monarchy hashtags were found to be shadowbanned.

Within China, Douyin complies with strict national content regulations. This includes censoring information about the religious movement Falun Gong and the Tiananmen massacre, among other examples.

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The legal environment in China forces Chinese internet product and service providers to work with government authorities. If Chinese companies disagree, or are unaware of their obligations, they can be slapped with legal and/or financial penalties and be forcefully shut down.

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In 2012, another social media product run by the founder of ByteDance, Yiming Zhang, was forced to close. Zhang fell into political line in a public apology. He acknowledged the platform deviated from “public opinion guidance” by not moderating content that goes against “socialist core values”.

Individual TikTok users should seriously consider leaving the app until issues of global censorship are clearly addressed.

But don’t forget, it’s not just TikTok, Meta products, such as Facebook and Instagram, also measure our interests by the seconds we spend looking at certain posts. They aggregate those behavioural data with our personal information to try to keep us hooked – looking at ads for as long as possible.

Some real cases of targeted advertising on social media have contributed to “digital redlining” – the use of technology to perpetuate social discrimination.

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In 2018, Facebook came under fire for showing some employment ads only to men. In 2019, it settled another digital redlining case over discriminatory practices in which housing ads were targeted to certain users on the basis of “race, colour, national origin and religion”.

And in 2021, before the US Capitol breach, military and defence product ads were running alongside conversations about a coup.

Then there are some worst-case scenarios. The 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed how Meta (then Facebook) exposed users’ data to the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica without their consent.

Cambridge Analytica harvested up to 87 million users’ data from Facebook, derived psychological user profiles and used these to tailor pro-Trump messaging to them. This likely had an influence on the 2016 US presidential election.

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With TikTok, the most immediate concern for the average Australian user is content censorship – not direct prosecution. But within China, there are recurring instances of Chinese nationals being detained or even jailed for using both Chinese and international social media.

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You can see how the consequences of mass data harvesting are not hypothetical. We need to demand more transparency from not just TikTok but all major social platforms regarding how data are used.

Let’s continue the regulation debate TikTok has accelerated. We should look to update privacy protections and embed transparency into Australia’s national regulatory guidelines – for whatever the next big social media app happens to be.


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Musk Bid for More Data on Twitter Bot Accounts Denied by Judge

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Elon Musk was denied access to additional documents about Twitter’s internal measure of robot and spam accounts after a judge concluded the company already disclosed enough of the information as part of the billionaire’s legal fight over a scuttled takeover. Twitter has “done enough” in handing over documents about the so-called mDAU — a metric used to survey human users of the social media platform, Delaware Chancery Judge Kathaleen St. J. McCormick ruled Friday. Musk had sought more information to bolster his bid to cancel a $44 billion (roughly Rs. 3.5 lakh crore) buyout of the company.

Musk and his lawyers repeatedly accused Twitter of seeking to hide crucial documents and witnesses as they ramp up for an October 17 trial on whether the world’s richest person can legitimately walk away from the deal.

The billionaire claims the company hadn’t levelled with him about the number of spam and bot accounts among its more than 230 million users. Twitter says Musk has buyer’s remorse and his concerns are a pretext to get out of a deal.

McCormick also denied Musk’s request Twitter officials conduct further searches of the files under the terms “user-active minutes,” (UAM) or “stickiness,” two ways of measuring how long users stay on the platform.

Both sides have issued a fusillade of subpoenas and deposition requests to banks, investors and advisers involved in the teetering transaction. McCormick has been forced to rule on about a half-dozen disputes over document disclosures and other discovery issues.

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Meanwhile, the judge also appointed Chris Sontchi, a retired bankruptcy judge, to serve as a special master to oversee discovery disputes. The Wilmington, Delaware-based Sontchi now works as a mediator and also serves as a judge on the Singapore International Commercial Court.

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© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.


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Ten Things Elon Musk’s Texts Reveal About the Twitter Deal

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A new trove of text messages between Elon Musk and Twitter executives, close friends, potential investors and Silicon Valley bros sheds light on how a $44 billion (nearly Rs. 3,58,100 crore) deal by the world’s richest person to buy the social media company came about — and ended up in court.

The texts show who wanted to be part of the buyout and reveal the inner circle’s musings on who should run the company if Musk did come to own it. They were disclosed as part of Twitter‘s lawsuit to make Musk follow through on his $54.20 (nearly Rs. 4,400)-per-share offer, which is slated to go to trial in Delaware Chancery Court next month.

Among the many texts, Musk discloses that he “has a minor case of COVID” in late March, is usually “up until ~3 am” and no longer has a personal assistant.

Here are 10 glimpses behind the scenes.

1. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s former Chief Executive Officer, worked to get Musk to join the board shortly after activist investors starting agitating for change at the company in 2020.

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“I tried my hardest to get you on our board, and the board said no,” Dorsey wrote. “That’s about the time I decided I need to work to leave, as hard as it was for me.”

Dorsey is “jack jack” on Elon’s phone.

2. Musk’s relations with Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal went from friendly to frosty within a week. On April 5, Agrawal tweeted that Musk was being appointed to Twitter’s board — and got Musk’s approval for the language of the tweet.

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But by April 9, the tone had shifted dramatically. Agrawal upbraided Musk over his tweets disparaging the company.

“You are free to tweet ‘is Twitter dying’ or anything else about Twitter — but it’s my responsibility to tell you that it’s not helping me make Twitter better in the current context. I’d like to provide your perspective on the level of internal distraction right now and how it [sic] hurting our ability to do work.”

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“What did you get done this week?” Musk snapped back.

“I’m not joining the board. This is a waste of time,” he texted 40 seconds later.

“Will make an offer to take Twitter private,” he texted 15 seconds after that.

3. A few minutes later, Musk texted with Chair Bret Taylor about fixing Twitter. The texts suggest he already knew about Twitter’s bot problem, which he would later cite as a reason to abandon the deal.

“This is hard to do as a public company, as purging fake users will make the numbers look terrible, so restructuring should be done as a private company,” Musk wrote. “This is Jack’s opinion too.”

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4. On April 20, Musk texted Oracle‘s Larry Ellison.

“Any interest in participating in the Twitter deal?” he asked. Ellison said yes. Musk asked how much.

“A billion … or whatever you recommend,” Ellison replied. Musk recommended $2 billion (nearly Rs. 16,300 crore). On April 24, Ellison said, “Since you think I should come in for at least $2 billion. I’m in for $2 billion.”

5. Several of Musk’s friends had ideas on whom Musk should hire. Investor Bill Lee suggested Bill Gurley of Benchmark Capital. Jason Calacanis noted that “Twitter CEO is my dream job.”

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6. Joe Rogan was a fan of the deal. “I REALLY hope you get Twitter,” the outsize podcaster texted. “If you do, we should throw a hell of a party.”

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7. Steve Jurvetson suggested Musk hire Emil Michael, the former chief business officer of Uber Technologies, and texted Michael’s LinkedIn account over.

“I don’t have a LinkedIn account,” Musk responded.

8. Gayle King of CBS asked Musk in April for an interview, saying buying Twitter was what the kids call a “gangsta move” and suggesting that Oprah Winfrey might want to join the board. King said she’d like a Twitter edit button.

“Twitter edit button is coming,” Musk responded.

9. Musk warned Calacanis against offering investment in the deal to “randos.”

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It “makes it seem like I’m desperate,” he said.

Calacanis said he only wanted to be supportive: “You know I’m ride or die brother.”

10. In March, Sam Bankman-Fried, the crypto billionaire, tried to get in touch with Musk through an associate to discuss joining in a deal for Twitter. Musk appeared uninterested — and unaware of Bankman-Fried’s wealth, asking, “Does he have huge amounts of money?”

Eventually he warmed to the idea, “so long as I don’t have to have a laborious blockchain debate.”

It’s unclear if they met.

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Meta Unveils ‘Make-A-Video’ AI Text-To-Video Generator: All Details

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Meta has unveiled a new artificial intelligence system called ‘Make-A-Video’ that will allow users to generate short video clips by entering a text description of the desired scene. The announcement follows the company’s recent advancements in generative technology research, which seeks to give creators more creative control over artificially intelligent image generation. With the announcement, Meta has taken the technology a step further by including text-to-video generation capabilities apart from text-to-image. However, the company is yet to release access to users for the model.

The prompt-generated videos are five seconds or shorter and would contain no audio. However, Meta claims that a wide range of prompts is supported by the model.

Meta, while making the announcement through a blog post, stated that in a commitment to ‘open science’ it will be sharing details of the research behind the latest artificial intelligence generative technology while also confirming its plans to release a demo experience for users.

Generative AI research is pushing creative expression forward by giving people tools to quickly and easily create new content,” said Meta in a blog post announcing the work. “With just a few words or lines of text, Make-A-Video can bring imagination to life and create one-of-a-kind videos full of vivid colors and landscapes,” added the parent company to Facebook and Instagram.

In the research paper describing the model at work, the company notes that ‘Make-A-Video’ demo model utilises pairs of images, captions, and unlabeled video footage sourced from WebVid-10M and HD-VILA-100M datasets that includes stock video footage created by sites like Shutterstock and scraped from the web that together spans hundreds of thousands of hours of footage.

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Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to Facebook to describe the work as “amazing progress,” while adding that “it’s much harder to generate video than photos, because beyond correctly generating each pixel, the system also has to predict how they’ll change over time.”

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However, there have been concerning issues raised around AI generative media, with some suggesting that it could lead to a rise in misinformation, propaganda, and non-consensual pornography, as seen in the case of AI image generative systems and deepfakes, according to a report by The Washington Post. Meta says it wants to be “thoughtful” about how they build such generative models and hence plans to limit access to them. However, a timeline on the demo experience and clarity on how access would be limited is yet to be known.


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