China Doesn’t Want to Watch You Dance

Last week, I spoke at Arizona State University on “Cybersecurity and the Future.” I was a panelist with the state’s director of homeland security, the CEO of a cybersecurity company, and the CEO of a health care company (an industry with significant cybersecurity challenges). It was a great event and I really love engaging with college students because they’re just the right mix of curious, skeptical, and impressionable. 

Whenever I do an event like this, one of my main goals is to raise awareness about how protecting our personal data is about more than credit scores and embarrassing texts. It really is about national security.  

Inevitably I’ll get the question, “Why would China want my data? So what if they have my social media videos—I don’t care if they see me flossing.” This is when I launch into my spiel about how it’s about more than just one person’s data, it’s about the comprehensive insights a nation like China can derive when it’s getting troves of personal information from hundreds of millions of Americans. I then typically use my go-to metaphor, where I ask the person to imagine waking up to a news story reporting China has secretly deployed 100 million sensors around the United States and has been clandestinely collecting our personal contacts, photos, GPS locations, online purchasing and viewing habits, and even our keyboard swipes and patterns. I tell them this would obviously cause an uproar and then, feeling very pleased with myself, I lower the boom by telling them this is exactly what is happening every day with the more than 130 million American users of TikTok. Typically, this causes the person I’m chatting with to pause, to admit that my scenario sounds bad, and then, at least half of the time, they say something like, “Well, I mean, everyone else has my data too so I might as well keep having fun.” At this point I thank them for coming to the event and I start thinking about which near-by bar is likely to serve the best old-fashioned. 

It’s not that I don’t understand—I do. The challenge of cybersecurity can feel like a battle that’s already lost. Like we’re all so far down the rabbit hole that the only thing we can really do is sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s a type of helplessness that’s made even more unattractive by the seemingly high cost of having to “miss out” on apps, games, and other things that can be genuinely enjoyable and even helpful.  

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