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Ticking Tok. Gaza Gets Pier’d. Haiti Struggles.

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A Ticking Clock For TikTok.

I feel like the point of reading Farenheit 451 in high school is to impress upon young minds the danger of simply banning things that make us uncomfortable. Not banning bad stuff, though, is also a problem; just ask Oregon about how well making fentanyl legal went. So, what’s the bad thing we want to ban today, you ask? It’s TikTok China. We’re trying to sort of ban China…from having access to US social media data.

Congress’s efforts to “ban TikTok” are really better described as efforts to ensure that China’s MSS (their version of the CIA) doesn’t: a) have access to data associated with devices on which we’ve installed the TikTok app; and b) have the ability to exert covert influence over us through content delivered to us via TikTok. If you ask me, those are pretty important things. But this is Noisecutter, and things are never that simple.

There’s two issues to consider here:

  1. Whether TikTok actually does those things now / whether it has the ability to be able to do them in the future; and

  2. Whether the proposed legislation would actually solve the problem.

Let’s start with the first. Does TikTok spy on people, or at least, does it have the ability to spy on people? It’s sort of a complicated answer.

Citizen Lab published a study in 2021 comparing TikTok with its China-focused cousin, Douyin, and with a specific eye towards security, privacy and censorship. The study didn’t uncover any overt spying or data theft, but it wasn’t an exoneration of TikTok either. Because, while there wasn’t evidence of spying going on now (and I believe the study holds up through today), whether TikTok could start spying at sometime in the future is something about which folks are less certain. The study notes:

TikTok and Douyin’s Android apps share many parts of their source code. We postulate that ByteDance develops TikTok and Douyin starting out from a common code base and applies different customizations according to market needs. We observed that some of these customizations can be turned on or off by different server-returned configuration values. We are concerned but could not confirm that this capability may be used to turn on privacy-violating hidden features.

And more directly:

We are concerned with the possibility where TikTok’s server-returned configuration values could enable those dormant code written for Douyin, which might lead to China-specific features being enabled.

And that’s just spying. What about the data you willfully give TikTok, whether you realize it or not? There’s a ton of value in that, too. It includes things like IP address, direct message contents, search history, watch history, and so on. As for location data, TikTok does collect it, but, by their account, with some restrictions. But a phone’s GPS, typically what we think of when we think of location data generation, isn’t the only source of location data. As this Wired article points out, every time you create content on TikTok, whether or not you post it, and even if posted to a private account, TikTok knows where and when the video was created. Also, by my estimation, because they have the video itself, TikTok (or the MSS standing behind it) could use some generally available facial recognition software to get a good idea of who is in the video as well. Bulk collection and analysis of this data would give the Chinese government insight into the lives of US citizens that the US government might not want China to have. Again, do we have direct evidence that they’re doing it? No. Nevertheless, is it reasonable to suspect that they are? Yes. And it’s important to note, also, that we’re only able to see what’s out in public; that is to say, we don’t know, but lawmakers likely do know, what the intelligence community’s been able to dig up around this threat. And whatever it is, it’s been enough to make Congress—both sides, no less—uncomfortable enough to act.

And what about the undue influence part? That all has to do with the type of content that’s promoted on the platform, and served up to users per TikTok’s content algorithm. Could that be manipulated to promote fake news and propaganda? Obviously yes. Russian hackers were able to mount a disinformation campaign on Facebook in the run-up to the 2016 election, and Russia didn’t even control Facebook. With the capabilities that platform control has to offer, one might reasonably expect the effects to be even greater.

So, how about that legislation? As currently drafted, it targets TikTok / ByteDance directly, and also creates a separate set of potential targets (i.e., apps / app developers) that are “foreign adversary controlled” and which “is determined by the President to present a significant threat to the national security of the United States” after the President’s issuance of a public notice and a report to Congress regarding the determination. Divestiture is an alternative to simply closing up shop, but the adequacy of the divestiture is also subject to Presidential determination through an interagency process.

I can see why the ACLU’s pissed about this. As drafted, the power seems a little broad. But, I’m not so swayed by arguments around First Amendment rights. The proposed regulation doesn’t have anything to do with the actual contents of any speech posted to TikTok or anywhere else. Rather, it’s about access. But here’s the thing: no one is banning social media. Folks can still post their silly dance videos, or whatever else it is they post, on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and a number of other social networks which do roughly the same thing as TikTok. It’s not as though TikTok provided a forum for folks otherwise without access to social media, and in terms of content, I’d venture a guess that more content violates TikTok’s terms of use (and is thus censored / taken down) than Instagram’s, YouTube’s or a number of other video-sharing platforms. So what’s so unique about TikTok then?

Growth. It’s that so many on social media yearn for. Those next 100 followers, or 1,000, or 10,000, etc. For whatever reason (one being, e.g., copious amounts of bots), TikTok seemed to grow people’s follower counts faster and higher, on average, than any other platform. It provided, in larger proportions, that sense of gratification and validation that drives so much of social media posting. And whether it was fully real or just slightly, it worked. And it’s why people love TikTok.

So, while the threat posed by TikTok might be half-nonsense, the real reason—if we’re being honest—as to why we’d want to chance it and let TikTok ride is just about fully nonsense. But, when that starts to mess with peoples’ income (e.g., lucrative brand deals for TikTokers, etc.), that’s when the pitchforks tend to come out.

Color me old fashioned, but I’m much more worried about national security than I am about influencers. Thankfully, Congress just might agree.

The Gaza Pier.

In last week’s State of the Union address, President Biden announced a US-led operation to construct a “pier” in Gaza to facilitate aid humanitarian shipments to the region. He did also mention, however, that this wouldn’t involve “boots on the ground,” and if you found that juxtaposition to be a bit of a head scratcher, you weren’t alone.

So, what’re we talking about here? It’s a whole segment of military operations called “Logistics Over The Shore” (or “LOTS,” for short). If you’re looking to go down a LOTS rabbit hole, start with the Army’s “History of Logistics-Over-The-Shore (LOTS) Operations” and look up the operations referenced there on Wikipedia. It’s a trip I went on, and here’s what I took away from it: the most impressive part of the US armed services isn’t their ability to destroy stuff, but rather, their ability to move a lot of stuff around the world quickly and precisely, overcoming a wide range of obstacles in the process. It’s a logistics powerhouse that sometimes gets into fights.

But what’s going to happen in Gaza, and in 60 days no less? In simple terms, the Army is going to construct a big floating causeway and then ram it into a beachhead. Then, boats full of relief supplies can make port on the floating end, unload onto trucks, and then those trucks bring the supplies on shore, distribute, etc. But, this is a Middle East conflict zone, and so nothing is ever that simple.

Per the DOD, US involvement will be limited to building the causeway, driving it into the ground, and bringing aid via ship to the floating end. The bit about trucks receiving it, driving it onto shore, and distributing it? That’ll be done by “partners in the region,” according to the DOD statement. This sounds ambitious but vague, which is why we’ve dug in.

The biggest question here is security. Israel’s main concern regarding aid distribution is that aid intended for humanitarian purposes will be diverted by Hamas to its fighters still occupying parts of Gaza. That concern, and Israel’s actions around it, are sort of why we’re in this situation today, with the US and our overgrown pool float.

But, to be fair, Israel’s concerns aren’t entirely unfounded. Israeli intelligence has presented fairly detailed allegations of individuals employed by The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (or “UNRWA,” for short) taking part in the 7 October attacks and otherwise aiding Hamas. Given that UNRWA had been coordinating humanitarian aid shipments into Gaza, one might wonder if: a) that’s at least partly how Hamas was able to smuggle in arms; and b) whether UN aid was / is being diverted to Hamas by actual Hamas operatives employed by UNRWA. And, as Andy Milburn pointed out on a recent episode of his podcast, Hamas fighters aren’t likely short of bullets right now, but of food and water. The hard part of delivering aid to Palestinian civilians isn’t getting it there, but rather making sure it goes where it’s intended to go, and that’s the part that we don’t seem to have figured out just yet.

It’ll be interesting to see how this unfolds. Maritime security could become an issue, and as the Houthis have demonstrated, it doesn’t take much to attack ships in open water. President Biden has indicated that Israel will be providing security on the shore side of the floating causeway, but in a desperate situation with potentially disorganized distribution, coupled with recent incidents involving IDF soldiers and Palestinian civilians seeking humanitarian aid, the situation could easily spiral. Despite the White House’s optimism, there’s a lot to be wary of here, and it continues to be a space to watch as history unfolds.


I’m going to try to keep this brief, though trying to briefly walk someone through even the very recent history of Haiti is a fool’s errand. The tl;dr: Haiti is a country that can’t seem to catch a break.

Back in 2010, Haiti was hit by a massive earthquake which killed somewhere between 160,000 and 300,000 people and rendering an additional 1.6 million people homeless. (To put things into perspective, the population of Haiti is roughly 11.5 million.) The earthquake was almost immediately followed by a widespread outbreak of cholera, which may have been caused by waste contamination emanating from a UN peacekeeper base. Anthony Bourdain visited Haiti about a year later, capturing, in his own way, the situation on the ground in the first episode of season 7 No Reservations. The episode is worth a watch, as Bourdain manages to capture—in a way only he ever could—the rich culture and history of a country struggling to cope with a widespread humanitarian crisis.

Government throughout this time was essentially a series of one kleptocrat being booted in favor of another, and a bizarre alliance system began between Haiti’s political factions and various armed gangs. And, of course, the gangs, many with Haitian army and elite police unit veterans among their members, were engaged in bloody conflict against one another. And then, in 2021, the Haitian president was assassinated, with the country’s current prime minister as a suspect. To date, those behind the assassination remain unknown. (For a deeper dive into this history, look no further than my friends Danny Gold and Sean Williams on this episode of The Underworld Podcast.)

What we’re looking at with Haiti today is the expected result after more than a decade of unrelenting political upheaval, economic strife, natural disasters, disease, starvation, violence, and inept efforts at mitigation by various governments and NGOs. The current Haitian prime minister, Ariel Henry, was most recently brokering a deal with Kenya which would involve the African nation’s police forces setting boots on the ground in Haiti to stem the gang violence and restore order. But Henry, whose legitimacy as head of government has been broadly challenged in Haiti since his assumption of power after the assassination of his predecessor, hasn’t yet returned to Haiti, decamping instead to Puerto Rico. Haiti’s most powerful gang leader, a former police officer called Jimmy “Barbeque” Chérizier, has called for Henry’s resignation, and has threatened “a civil war that will lead to genocide” should Henry return. The forces promised by Kenyan President William Ruto have also not yet turned up, owing likely in part to domestic political objections.

Meanwhile, as the violence continues to escalate, some diplomatic staff of the United States, Germany, and other nations have been evacuated from the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, while the US State Department has acknowledged the deployment of US personnel to bolster security at its still-operating embassy.

For the US, a crisis this close to home couldn’t come at a worse time. With fraught situations in Ukraine, Gaza, and the Red Sea to manage, I can’t believe that there’s any appetite for intervention in Haiti at the moment. And, of course, let’s not forget about the debacle surrounding the US’s actions with respect to the presidency of Aristide.

But I do also think that the State Department, behind closed doors, may be discouraging Ariel Henry from returning to Haiti. The consequences in terms of violence would undoubtedly be dire, and given the relatively vast manpower and armament available to the gangs both in the capital and across the country, it’s not a situation I’d expect 1,000-2,000 Kenyan police officers, or even light infantry soldiers, to be able to handle. But what would the alternative be? Jimmy Chérizier as the new PM? Or perhaps more realistically, dictator? I can’t imagine that anyone besides South American drug traffickers would be in favor of that outcome. And caught in the crossfire of all this are millions of innocent civilians, failed by both their leaders and the international community since perhaps the country’s inception.

For now, all we can do is watch, wait, and maybe hope.

Other Things Worth Reading.






Today’s news cycle is doomed.

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Rex Chatterjee

Rex is a lawyer and risk analyst living and working in Brooklyn, New York.

For the past 20 years, Rex has been a keen observer of and commentator on a wide range of news items and current events. Rex’s interests span the breadth of business and finance, technology and innovation, and conflict and global affairs, among others.

In addition to writing and producing the Noisecutter newsletter and podcast, Rex interviews creators, founders and business leaders for his other podcast, Roadmap Zero.

Rex maintains a private law practice, Chatterjee Legal, which focuses on the needs of startups and other innovation-driven businesses. He also serves as the managing principal of Titan Grey, a risk management consulting firm.

Rex is a graduate of Cornell University and Columbia Law School.

Rex Chatterjee




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