Short videos need personal data security

By WANG YING / 06-24-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The sudden fame of “Noodle Brother” Cheng Yunfu came with severe harassment from small-time social media influencers, who were willing to go to extreme lengths to get a video with him—jumping on cars, climbing over walls, and screaming his name. Photo: CFP

The year 2016 saw the short video industry emerge and boom rapidly. With the popularization of mobile terminals and the development of 4G and 5G, which will soon be accessible on a large scale, short video has become a rising force in the current communication landscape, and has increasingly become a leading internet medium.

According to the 47th Statistical Report on China’s Internet Development released by the China Internet Network Information Center, as of December 2020, the number of short video users in China had reached 873 million, accounting for 88.3% of the total number of internet users. Users are spending more time on short videos, making it the second most popular type of application after instant messaging. As a new social channel, these platforms have shown increasingly prominent social features, becoming a national leader in the application industry. 
Some scholars believe that short videos are an internet medium with a complete ecology, and that they have become an essential underlying architecture for the production and flow of all internet information. Short video is not only the dominant format for daily communication activities, but also this format is gradually taking over official information dissemination.
However, personal information leakage in the short video industry has become a haunting problem. Short videos are more expressive than previous forms of communication. Once private information is involved, the scope and intensity of communication are immeasurable. Therefore, it is urgent to protect personal information transmitted within short videos in the era of digital technology.
Risks of information leakage
In an alarming trend, some short videos disclose other people’s privacy to attract traffic and gain likes. For example, some short video content producers consider the platform an arena for upholding justice and influencing public opinion, so they film aberrant social behaviors, such as illegal or immoral acts. However, such videos are controversial because they are suspected of violating the rights of portrait of the person being filmed, and may even expose others’ private information, such as name and occupation, causing great distress to the person being filmed. 
The law has responded to such videos. In 2020, the Beijing Internet Court ruled that a passer-by who filmed a little girl being disciplined by her parents constituted infringement, a ruling with practical significance. The defendant, a passer-by, shot a video of the child being disciplined by her parents and posted it on the internet for public censure, triggering a heated debate. The Beijing Internet Court found that the defendant should be held responsible for infringing the family’s right of portrait and privacy by forwarding the posts on Weibo without the consent of the girl’s guardians.
Some short videos magnify or distort others’ behaviors. Sometimes, after people are filmed at work or engaging in a personal matter, they unwittingly become “online influencers” after the video goes viral. The act of shooting, recording, and uploading to social networks without others’ permission can easily infringe their privacy. The subjects might gain unwanted sudden fame, with their lives disrupted. For example, the Shandong “Noodle Brother,” a ramen maker on the streets of his rural hometown suddenly became a social media star when a food vlogger posted a video of him on Douyin, a popular short video app. Before long, crowds of people were following him everywhere he went, blocking local traffic and sometimes forcing him to shelter inside his home.
In the era of short videos, the boundaries between public and private spaces become blurred, and some users cannot accurately draw the line. Some users take advantage of video platforms to become social media influencers at the cost of their personal privacy. Some short video users share bits and pieces of life, often revealing personal information, interest orientation, including family members, their life trajectory, and so on. Such behavior has security risks. Given that video is more intuitive than pictures and texts, there are also a large number of videos of children, leading to an accumulation of children’s information scattered on the internet, a major security concern.
Also, after users’ behaviors are fully digitized and stored on these platforms, personal information use is accompanied by the possible risk of personal information abuse and infringement. The hidden risk is more obvious in the field of short videos. In 2018, Toutiao, developer of the Douyin App, was caught collecting contact book information without users’ consent. With the gradual formation of oligopoly in the short video industry, the fact that a few short video platforms master massive amounts of personal information has become a reality.
Reasons behind
From ordinary internet users to researchers, it is generally agreed that the more advanced media technology is, the less privacy there will be. Like it or not, people are sacrificing their private information for a more convenient life. At present, the risk of personal information disclosure is looming behind the rapid development of short video communication. To delve further into the issue, the following aspects must be reflected upon.
First of all, the source of personal information leakage is the fact that video is a record. Some scholars believe that short video is a bottom-up communication, from private to public, centered on life and people. Recording is the key word in the age of short video. Chinese short video app Kuaishou’s slogan is “record your life, record you,” while Douyin has the slogan “record a good life.” 
Some scholars believe that short video is most suitable for “anybody to record” and “recording the everyman.” The production threshold for short video is low, encouraging adoption by ordinary internet users, so that the number of products and information capacity increase without precedent, and videos’ penetration into people’s daily life is also increasing day by day. 
According to the Kuaishou Research Institute, between July 2019 and June 2020, the number of users who published works on Kuaishou reached 300 million. On Kuaishou alone, there are more than 70 million users documenting family and daily life. In addition to its significance in cultural and intellectual life, this national record contains hidden risks of excessive sharing and improper exposure of a large amount of personal information.
Second, the encouragement of short video platforms exacerbates the disclosure of personal information. The popularity of short video is the first large-scale commercial application of internet AI technology in the video recording field. By lowering the technical threshold, improving user experiences, and even launching traffic subsidies and huge rewards, these platforms have succeeded in stimulating people’s recording instincts.  
Accepting short videos is an immersive act. With the help of algorithm recommendations, the platform collects users’ browsing preferences and accurately immerses them in surfing experiences. For example, Douyin’s product design embodies the “behavior-feedback-reward” mechanism. However, it’s worth noting that since the beginning of this year, major short video platforms have launched anti-addiction systems to curb the phenomenon.
In addition to the aforementioned hazards, there is a lack of supervision. Given the large number of users and the large amount of content, it is difficult for the platform to achieve comprehensive real-time supervision. After users upload their videos, it is difficult to control the depth and range of transmission. Even after a video has been deleted, it is difficult to end secondary transmission of the video content. 
At present, most short video platforms on the market use algorithms to carry out a machine review of keywords or keyframes, but improper content still has ways to get around. Therefore, it is an inevitable reality that platforms lack adequate supervision over the disclosure of private personal information in short videos.
Finally, some users lack an awareness of personal information protection. The short video user group is large, and their media literacy is uneven, so their awareness of personal information protection is not the same. As a result, there are many short videos that intentionally or unintentionally give out private information. 
In other cases, some users are driven by an unrestricted habit of scrutiny and obsessive interest. In some scenes which reveal private information, users might cross the moral bottom line and worsen the situation, by clicking, browsing, saving, and sharing to meet their desire to pry into other people’s privacy.
Going forward
Personal information leakage in short video communication calls for multiple governance mechanisms. Personal information is not only related to privacy and dignity for individuals, but also has public attributes. Government departments, social media platforms, users, and industry organizations should work together to face the challenges of properly safeguarding personal rights and interests and rationally using information.
China’s supervision of the online video industry began early. However, with digital technology’s rapid progress, especially the arrival of intelligent communication, production and dissemination mechanisms for short videos are quickly changing, and laws and regulations are lagging behind. 
As far as platforms are concerned, technical support and accountability systems should be implemented. For users, personal information self-discipline needs to be improved. The problem of personal information disclosure is extensive. Users are not only the producers and users of their own information, but also viewers of others’ information. 
In the meantime, raising public awareness is of great significance to the management of personal information disclosure. By presenting typical cases, adding expert interpretation, and fostering deep discussions within society, we can enhance the public’s awareness of personal information protection and obtain a wealth of relevant knowledge, so as to solve the problem of personal information leakage in the short video era.
Wang Ying is from the Institute of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Edited by YANG XUE