It pays to be skeptical when they tell you the kids aren’t alright. It is a cliche that this generation of young adults is forever the most imperiled, beset by irresistible psychological temptations from both domestic and foreign sources.
Today, young men are being taken in by the countercultural appeal of nationalist and racially antagonistic philosophies. They are marching through the streets, reciting racist slogans, indoctrinating, radicalizing, and playing into Vladimir Putin’s hands. On the other end of the spectrum, the children of the most comfortable generation to have ever lived are embracing a discredited brand of revolutionary socialism. They have been rendered blind to the criminal excesses of the gangs that masquerade as governments in Beijing, Havana, and Caracas. American democracy is threatened by our wayward youth.
As rebellions against staid convention go, reenacting the rites and rituals of the 20th century’s ugliest ideological perversions isn’t the healthiest exercise. But these expressions of youthful anxiety have an objectively limited appeal. The apoplectic reaction to them, while understandable, has been disproportionate to the scale of the threat they present. That is not to say that insidious threats originating from foreign shores do not exist, or that the public and policymakers may under-react to them. But when malign foreign influence descends upon American youths, it does not come bearing torches or little red books. It appears in the form of adorable mobile apps.
In 2017, FaceApp appeared in online application stores and promptly exploded in popularity. The app, which uses artificial intelligence to age a user’s face by several decades, soon amassed 80 million active users. It was not long, though, before analysts began to suspect that FaceApp was not just another harmless amusement. In June, the software developer Joshua Nozzi warned that the server hosting the photographs uploaded to FaceApp was owned by a Russian company (though the hardware was located in the United States). That firm could be using the data it’s gathering to train facial recognition algorithms that have become a standard policing tool in authoritarian states.
Cybersecurity experts quickly dismissed those fears even as FaceApp conspicuously sought to allay them by allowing users to tighten up their privacy settings. As it happens, though, the concerns about this application and its Russian origins were not unfounded. On Monday, the FBI warned that FaceApp is among several Russian-made software applications that pose a counterintelligence risk. Moscow, the FBI noted in a letter to Sen. Chuck Schumer, maintains “robust cyber exploitation capabilities,” as if anyone needed a reminder. They added that Russian intelligence agencies could access the information on their networks without any permission from Internet service providers.
Similarly, young mobile users have recently made the app TikTok an overnight sensation. This social media app allows users to create short, looping videos no greater than one-minute long—stimulating the pleasure centers activated by the manic energy of the infinite scroll. This application was the 2012 invention of a Chinese firm and, while it is wildly popular in the U.S. and Asia, it is not available in China. That should have been a clue.
As the Chinese nationalist project has intensified (itself a sign of deep insecurities), Beijing has begun to wield TikTok as it would any other tool of state propaganda. The application’s moderators have been implicated in the censorship of videos that mention subjects that the People’s Republic regards as taboo: the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the status of Tibet, the violent repression of demonstrators in Hong Kong, the banned religious sect Falun Gong, and the sprawling network of brutal reeducation camps into which millions of Chinese Muslims have been consigned. Thus, China has gone a long way toward imposing on the rest of the world the censorious information regime with which its own citizens are yoked, and Americans are participating in it by choice. Because it is cute.
U.S. national security officials are still investigating TikTok over the potential risk it poses to domestic information security. If it was found to be a threat, though, it would not be the first time a Chinese-owned app has been cited by American officials as a threat to public safety. In March, U.S. officials ordered the Chinese company Beijing Kunlun Tech Co Ltd. to sell its majority stake in the gay-dating application Grindr, warning that the personal data stored on the app’s servers could be exploited by China to blackmail Americans with sensitive positions in industry, government, and the defense sector.
Cybersecurity experts have long warned that the behavior of American consumers has not adapted to the realities of the modern information economy. But government officials in a free and egalitarian society can only do so much to impose caution on the vulnerable and adventurous. The public will have to take some responsibility for its own information security, and being an educated patron of online services is an essential first step. For young adults who cannot be expected to perform the necessary due diligence, parents and educators will have to take the lead. Their first step should be to get children off these Trojan-horse applications. All the likes in the world are not worth the sacrifice of liberty.