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The Strange Saga of TikTok

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What’s happening with TikTok is one of the strangest things I’ve seen.

Let me catch you up. One of the world’s hottest apps has become a political hot potato because it’s owned by the Chinese internet giant ByteDance at a time when relations between the United States and China are at a low point.

U.S. government officials say they are worried that the Chinese government might force TikTok to hand over information it collects about Americans and use the app to spread a Chinese-friendly view of the world.

TikTok has tried and failed to calm those fears.

That brings us to this weekend’s strange scene: The chief executive of Microsoft negotiated directly with the president of the United States over the purchase of an app from China.

Here are some thoughts about what’s going on:

U.S. officials are getting the outcome they want. Probably. My New York Times colleagues wrote that there are people inside the White House who want TikTok banned rather than sold to an American company. President Trump said as much himself on Friday. It seemed that a phone call between him and Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, put a TikTok takeover by Microsoft back on the front burner.

Microsoft said on Sunday that it’s negotiating to buy the TikTok app, but only in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

While some Trump officials might have preferred to have the app banned outright, having it owned by a U.S. company would still be a win.

Huh? Microsoft? Microsoft is both an odd and perfect fit. A new owner of TikTok needs to be palatable to the Trump administration, and Microsoft has mostly stayed in the government’s good graces. A buyer also needs to be rich enough to purchase TikTok but not so powerful — ahem, Facebook or Google — that buying the app might tip it into monopoly territory.

And Microsoft has the technical expertise to untangle TikTok from ByteDance and make sure that information about Americans stays in U.S. computer systems.

This is not a done deal. Microsoft has about six weeks to haggle over price with ByteDance, figure out how to safeguard the information of TikTok users, and keep U.S. government officials on board.

Some people who make a living on TikTok are freaking out about the app’s fate, my colleague Taylor Lorenz reported. There is a cloud of uncertainty about all of this.

The Times’s Karen Weise wrote that Microsoft has a recent record of buying businesses and not interfering in them too much — maybe a sliver of good news for TikTok fans worried about the app becoming boring.

Is every Chinese technology a no-go zone? I wonder what will happen to other Chinese technology companies in the United States. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted in a weekend interview that the administration was looking at other Chinese software companies that he said fed data to China’s government.

He didn’t mention other kinds of technology from Chinese companies that already operate in the United States — Lenovo, for example, is one of the country’s biggest sellers of laptops, and it owns the mobile phone maker Motorola. U.S. officials have expressed concerns previously about DJI, which makes the popular Mavic drones.

If tensions between the United States and China continue to escalate, all technology companies based in China — maybe Chinese companies in any industry, really — may find it difficult to operate in the United States.

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Brian X. Chen, our personal tech columnist, tells us how you can obtain a record of your data from the tech giants.

Last week’s antitrust hearing made it clear that Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon touch every aspect of our digital lives, including our messaging apps, virtual assistants and hardware. That may make you curious what data each of those companies has collected about you.

Here’s how you can find out. These instructions are to be followed from a laptop or desktop computer, not a mobile app:

Facebook:

Google:

Apple:

Amazon:

In 2018, I downloaded copies of my information from each of the Big Four, and I was most disturbed by the incredible amount of data that Facebook was hoarding about me, including information on my friends and exes. The Facebook data also revealed that hundreds of advertisers, many that I had never heard of, had my contact information.

You can guess what I did next: I deleted my Facebook account. I haven’t regretted it.


  • The path of Twitter’s alleged teenage hacker: My New York Times colleagues traced the life of Graham Ivan Clark, the 17-year-old charged with orchestrating a hack of Twitter last month that resulted in the takeover of accounts of some of the world’s most famous people. My colleagues write that Clark loved the Minecraft video game as a kid, becoming known as a scammer who cheated people out of their money.

  • Living online without getting swept into perpetual surveillance: One lesson from my colleague Kashmir Hill is that a lifetime of our online photos are fodder for searchable databases that can be used to identify us by our faces. Now Kash writes about a team of computer engineers who say they found a way to disguise digital photos enough to confuse facial recognition systems. One problem: It might not work.

  • Nostalgia for those ridiculous cellphone ringtones: People of a certain age might remember how important it was to find just the right tune to signal that your boyfriend was calling your flip phone. The tech publication OneZero explains how the 2000s ringtone industry made today’s smartphone app stores and music streaming services possible.

Awwww. A tiny kitten enjoying the heck out of a snack (on TikTok).


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