Google, TikTok, and Seriousness

July 15, 2020

Short form video is in the news. TikTok captivates millions of eyeballs. Many of these eyeballs belong to Americans. Most of these Americans choose not to understand several nuances of “free” 30 second videos created, transmitted, viewed, and forwarded via a mobile device; to wit:

  1. Software for mobile phones can covertly or overtly suck up data and send those data to a control node
  2. Those data can be cross correlated in order to yield useful insights about the activities, preferences, and information flowing into and out of a mobile device equipped with an application. Maybe TikTok does this too?
  3. Those digital data can be made available to third parties; for example, advertising analytics vendors and possibly, just maybe, a country’s intelligence services.

The Information published one of those “we can’t tell you where we got these data but by golly this stuff is rock solid” stories. This one is called “TikTok Agreed to Buy More Than $800 Million in Cloud Services From Google.” Let’s assume that this story about the Google TikTok deal is indeed accurate. We learn:

Last week, though, word surfaced of a buzzy new customer for Google Cloud—TikTok, the app for sharing short videos that is the year’s runaway social media hit. The deal is a lucrative one for Google Cloud, The Information has learned. In a three-year agreement signed in May 2019, TikTok committed to buying more than $800 million of cloud services from Google over that period…

What’s with the Google? Great or lousy business judgment? Does Google’s approach to a juicy deal include substantial discounts in order to get cash in the door? Is the deal another attempt by the Google to get at least some of the China market which it masterfully mishandled by advising the Chinese government to change its ways?

Nope. The new Google wants to grow by locking down multi year contracts. The belief is that these “big deals” will give the Google Cloud the protein shake muscles needed to deal with the Microsofties and the Bezos bulldozer.

New management, new thinking at the GOOG, and there will be more of the newness revealed with each tweak of a two decades old “system.”

At the same time as the Information “real” news story arrived in the DarkCyber news center, a pundit published MBA type write up popped into our “real news” folder. This write up is “The TikTok War.”

Unlike the Information’s story, the Stratechery essay is MBA consultant speak, which is different from “real news.” The point of the 3,900 word consultant report is:

I believe it is time to take China seriously and literally…

There you go: An MBA consulting revelation. One should take China seriously and literally.

Okay. Insight. Timely. Incisive.

From this conclusion, TikTok’s service is no longer appropriate in the US. Banning is probably a super duper idea if I understand the TikTok War. (How does one fight a war by banning digital information? Oh, well, irrelevant question. What’s that truism about ostriches putting their heads in the sand? Also irrelevant.)

Let’s step back and put these two different TikTok articles in a larger context.

The Information wants everyone to know that a mysterious “source” has said that Google has a three year deal with TikTok. This is a surprise? Nope. Google is on the hunt for cash because after Google’s own missteps, it is faced with hard to control costs and some real live “just like Google” competitors; namely, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Netflix. There’s also the mounting challenges of political and social annoyances to add some spice to the Googlers’ day.

The MBA consultant analysis points out that China has to be taken seriously. Prior to TikTok, China was not taken seriously? I suppose TikTok is the catalyst for seriousness. More likely, the TikTok thing evokes MBA consultant outputs to confirm what many people sort of intuit but have not been able to sum up with a “now is the time” utterance.

In my lecture yesterday for the National Cyber Crime Conference, I presented a diagram of how Chinese telecommunications and software systems can exfiltrate information with or without TikTok.

Banning an app is another one of those “Wow, the barn burned and Alibaba built a giant data center where the Milking Shorthorns once stood” moments.

Sourceless revelations about Google’s willingness to offer a deal to a China centric TikTok and MBA consultant revelations that one should take China seriously warrants one response: The ship sailed, returned, built a giant digital port, and has refueled for a return journey. Ban away.

Stephen E Arnold, July 15, 2020


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