Memo: Where NatSec Meets Commerce

Editor’s Note: this essay was re-published in Newsweek.

There’s one balloon that can’t and won’t be shot down; we are far too reliant on it.

In previous explainers and reports on first-party data, I mostly focused on its advertising benefits. It wasn’t until Amazon began acquisition talks with Roomba, the autonomous robot vacuum, that I began considering data collection for purposes beyond the narrow path of ethics. Here is a snippet from an August 2022 report – keep this in mind while I explain what I believe to be a consequential perspective on the intersection of online retail and national security.

Amazon doesn’t rely on many of the data collection practices prohibited by Apple’s privacy initiatives (ATT). This acquisition means more first-party data collection. […] Amazon now has a presence in the following categories: laptops, streaming television, in-home assistants, smart speakers, Door cameras, fitness monitors, and now vacuum cleaners. Collectively, Amazon knows more about its consumers than any other company on earth.

With the iRobot acquisition, Amazon knows more about its consumers demographics and psychographics. It knows the size of your home, its layout, the location of your home, and its surfaces. From there, Amazon can deduce median income, product preferences, and more.

By the measure explored in this report, Amazon (and Apple) know more about its consumers than any domestic corporation, but Americans tend to trust Amazon enough to avoid revolt and public demonstration. And by the measure explored here, China knows more about Americans than any sovereign nation, perhaps including our own.

First-party data is collected directly from users or customers, typically through their interactions with a company’s website, app, or other digital channels. This data can include information such as browsing behavior, search history, purchase history, and demographic information. First-party data is highly valuable to companies and its ownership because it is directly linked to their customers or users, allowing them to gain insights into their behavior, preferences, and needs.

The debate around the surveillance of Americans by way of a large balloon is a distraction from a more significant form of potential surveillance. We may be overlooking the growing advantage that many outside of the commerce industry have yet to fully grasp.

As of writing this report, four of the top six mobile apps available to iPhone users are owned by Chinese companies. Of them, Temu, Shein, and Bytedance-owned TikTok have developed eCommerce strategies that rival (or exceed) the vast majority of American companies in volume.

The average American lacks an understanding of China’s general strengths beyond manufacturing capacity and low costs. That would be a deep dive in and of itself. For the sake of brevity, this will focus on business-to-business trade and direct-to-consumer commerce. Chinese factories manufacture almost every major technical product that Americans seek. The Executive Branch of the U.S. Government is quite selective in the goods that it chooses to tariff. Originally levied by the Trump administration in March 2018, President Biden maintained the tariffs covering the near-trillion dollars in Chinese goods on the list. But many products without American equivalents were excluded.

While U.S. tariffs cover a long list of Chinese products, they left many popular products untouched. That made it possible for U.S. imports of items such as cellphones, laptops and video game consoles to surge during the pandemic.

For decades, Chinese raw materials and finished goods supplied American retailers. Today, thanks to an executive order, China’s direct-to-consumer business will one day rival B2B sales to American retailers. To understand the impact of that March 2018 decision, consider that direct-to-consumer companies were not only excluded from tariffs – they were actually incentivized to sell to Americans. There still exists an $800 exemption that allows DTC companies like Shein, Temu, Alibaba, and TikTok to ship here without taxation. Instituted in 2016, packages worth less than $800 have been able to enter duty-free. Since Shein and others ship most orders from Chinese warehouses, and since most orders fall under that cost threshold, those companies receive tax benefits.

This alone incentivizes Chinese companies to sell in America, but it doesn’t end there. Additionally, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) waived export taxes on those same products. Much like TikTok is an altogether different app (with far greater restriction on content and usage time), Shein doesn’t sell goods inside of China. In effect, the CCP traded tax revenue for American market share. Shein has now been in the number one spot on the 2PM Power List for more than 50 weeks.

As China’s DTC businesses continue to maintain top positions in the app store and on power lists, expect U.S.’s trade deficit with China to grow.

But while deficit is a visible marker of retail imbalance, there are other key measures that can indicate dependency on Chinese products. Two short months after the report was written on Amazon’s acquisition of Roomba, this report on TikTok’s eCommerce job listing speculated on the potential power of a TikTok eCommerce operation.

The speed with which TikTok is able to make products sell out in stores and online has shown that it’s not a complete hurdle for customers. But linking commerce directly into its platform opens a new revenue stream for TikTok that’s all the more critical now that Apple has clamped down on third-party advertising data collection. Like Meta, TikTok has been reported to be using in-app browsers to collect key data points that are against to skirt around Apple’s recent iOS privacy practices, which have made it more difficult to target ads.

And just days after highlighting TikTok’s staffing up of eCommerce industrialists, I introduced Temu’s quick rise with this now-understated comparison to Shein and TikTok. While presumptuous at the time, the company’s Super Bowl 2023 ad catapulted it to number one in the app store. Here, I explained the new direct-to-consumer retail, one that I now understand to be buoyed by both China and America’s tax incentives:

Consider it the new direct-to-consumer retail. Shipping orders directly from their origin factories keeps prices low. Shein, the Chinese ultra-fast-fashion giant, has taken the world by storm and continues to grow in magnitude, dwarfing the SKU counts and volume of sales of competitors like Zara, H&M and Boohoo. The clothes are cheap, disposable, and addicting. Temu could fulfill a similar desire for “cheap yet good-enough” products – especially as America’s historic run of inflation continues to tilt consumer prices upward.

A similar business model is in the works at TikTok, which is currently hiring for eCommerce fulfillment and warehousing and logistics jobs in the US as part of a bigger commerce push. We wrote in October about why TikTok is uniquely positioned to actually bridge the gap between content and commerce when so many apps – even Instagram – have failed to make it stick.

At the core of China’s commerce industry is its focus on the value of the data it collects. In short, China has been vigilant about the collection of first party data far longer than America. The South China Morning Post, an English-first publication that is part-owned by the Alibaba Group, began emphasizing first-party data collection in 2019:

Six months ago, South China Morning Post decided to cut itself off from third-party data and switch to a first-party data platform. […] The first-party data platform will allow South China Morning Post to achieve the next phase of growth. On the editorial side, that means turning its vast scale into a loyal readership. On the commercial side, that means giving advertisers more precise targeting capabilities.

It’s been reported that as recently as March 2021, the Chinese government pressured Alibaba to sell SCMP. That sale would place the media property under the influence of the state; it is unclear if that pressure has continued. Two years into China’s emphasis on first-party data collection and it was still weeks before it was reported, in America, that iOS 14.5 would take on Facebook and Google tracking in April 2021. We began our report on the implications with: “Apple’s intentions appear straightforward at first glance. The company wanted to improve the privacy of its end users. This virtuous effort came with a few additional outcomes. By upgrading its privacy practices, Apple will impair large ad networks that have grown with the help of those end users.” Prior to this now-infamous software update, most advertisers relied on third-party data to reach new customers.

According to Google Trends: December 2021 was the inflection point of interest in America’s commerce industry. First-party data was a niche marketing term until then. It was a phrase used by a select few advertising industrialists to denote a shifting model in collecting consumer data. Ever since, it’s been all the talk for American retailers. It just so happens that the easiest way to collect first-party data, in an efficient and cost-effective manner, is to sell cheap goods. China has mastered this. Forbes asks, is Temu the next Shein?

This isn’t the first time a China-backed start-up has disrupted America’s e-commerce world with cheap items. Online fast fashion outlet Shein got a big break during the pandemic as its competitors were hampered by bricks-and-mortar stores which were forced to shut up shop. Buoyed by backing on TikTok, downloads of the Shein’s app surged to 193 million in 2021, up from 67 million in 2019.

How sensitive is China’s ability to collect consumer data to the U.S. government? In 2021, President Biden signed the Secure Equipment Act, preventing the FCC from authorizing “radio frequency devices” that may pose a national security risk. And the Biden-era FCC expelled China Telecom Americas, noting: “Washington is continuing investigations into Chinese technology that began during the previous administration.” According to the Brookings Institute:

The law’s effect is to prevent U.S. technology platforms from being forced to interoperate with or transfer data to suppliers like Huawei or ZTE that may have ties to the Chinese government.

But in the matter of cheap, direct-to-consumer shopping of the cross-border flavor – there is not a concern at all by most (read: all) American policymakers.

What’s Next For China and First-Party Data

The importance of first-party data in China’s tech economy cannot be overstated; it’s impossible to separate that economy from its political allegiances. That being said, with its fast-growing retail infrastructure, China has become a global leader in DTC exports.

First-party data has become a critical component of China’s economy. For example, in the eCommerce sector, companies like Temu, Shein, TikTok, Alibaba and use first-party data to improve their search algorithms. By analyzing data on customer behavior and preferences, these groups can understand consumers and their larger communities.

Beyond eCommerce, first-party data is also playing a critical role in China’s digital finance industry. Companies like Ant Group, which operates the popular Alipay platform, use first-party data to assess the creditworthiness of borrowers, enabling them to offer loans and other financial services to individuals and small businesses that might not have access to traditional banking channels. By analyzing data on spending patterns, bill payments, and other factors, Ant Group can make more accurate assessments of credit risk and offer more targeted financial products.

The use of first-party data in China’s tech economy has also raised concerns about privacy and data security. With the massive amounts of data being generated and collected by Chinese tech companies, there is a risk that this data could be misused or abused. There have been reports of companies using data to discriminate against certain users or to manipulate consumer behavior. There have also been concerns about the close relationship between some Chinese tech companies and the government, raising questions about whether user data could be used for surveillance or other purposes. Consider GTCOM, a big-data and artificial intelligence company controlled by the China’s “Central Propaganda Department.” A 2020 report by MIT’s Technology Review on how “China Surveills the World” sheds light on GTCOM’s scope:

One of their products claims to collect 10 terabytes of data a day, or two to three petabytes per year, from web pages, forums, Twitter, Facebook, WeChat, and other sources. In terms of size, that’s the equivalent of 20 billion Facebook photos. The company describes its work as contributing directly to China’s national security, including military intelligence and propaganda. GTCOM’s research and development arm has developed algorithms that look for military keywords in the information it collects, which could for instance come from CVs or patents.

TikTok is widely considered one of the most successful apps in history. Shein was the number one shopping app in the app store, only to be unseated by Temu. And Alibaba’s GMV far exceeds Amazon’s. They all share algorithm-driven eCommerce as a core competency. A recent article by Australia’s Power Retail explains:

This trust in the algorithm, and the ability to complete tasks without leaving the app, makes it an ideal platform for in-app ecommerce sales. Currently, when people tap on TikTok ads or links, the app defaults to a TikTok-made in-app browser. This new shop tab however will offer broader opportunities for the platform to keep more of its operations in-house and directly deliver product listings to customer feeds.

TikTok is fueled by first-party data and algorithms that “read your mind,” according to the New York Times deep dive on the subject. That same report noted that “concern about Chinese consumer technology is bipartisan.” The Trump administration asserted that TikTok’s “data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information,” and that its government of origin could “build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.” This ban was widely unpopular with Americans; it stalled in Congress.

Based on the above, there’s reason to believe that no country knows more about the United States of America than China. And a pandemic-era tax incentive accelerated this data collection.

A CNN article published in February 2023 explained: “US can’t keep up with China’s warship building, Navy Secretary says.” There is simply little to no overlap between the officials who make such assertions and commerce industrialists who observe their reasons to raise alarm. Art of War is an ancient Chinese treatise consumed by many Americans, from prizefighters to athletes and military leaders. But many more who’ve never read the book can identify one of its most popular proverbs: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Art of War is authorized to be kept in every Army unit; it is also listed on the Marine Corps Professional Reading Program. It’s considered instructional material at The United States Military Academy at West Point.

There is not a more capable first-party data collection and mining system in the known world. If U.S. government officials are raising alarms about surveillance balloons or tools required for battle (warships and the like), we should also begin to understand the depth of knowledge known of its assumed opposition. That’s if the 5th Century BC book, attributed to the ancient Chinese general Sun Tsu, is as credible to them as precedent suggests.

By Web Smith|Editor: Hilary Milnes|Art:クリスティーナ・ウィリアムス、アレックス・レミー 

Leave a Reply