The United States has been walking the tightrope with the TikTok short-video app for a few years now. In 2020, former President Trump tried to force Bytedance, the Chinese company which owns Tik-Tok, to sell the company or risk being banned from Google and Apple app stores over allegations that TikTok was downloading users’ data and forwarding them to the Chinese government.
Bytedance entered into an agreement to sell some of its share of TikTok to the U.S.-based Oracle Corp., but the deal was never finalized.
Trump’s concerns were echoed by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) who asked the Treasury Department to look into the national security implications of TikTok’s data storage practices. According to Chinese law, the Chinese government can access any and all information that flows through Chinese servers without giving notice to service providers, companies, or end users.
“The threat posed through facial recognition, location data, and A.I. based image scanning techniques could allow the Chinese government to obtain sensitive information,” Rubio had said in a statement. “In the wrong hands, this information poses a risk, not only to the individual involved but to American national security.”
In mid-July, the senior Republican on Federal Communications Commission, Brendan Carr, said there is a national security risk in allowing military members to use the TikTok app.
“With TikTok, this is a device right in your pocket. It’s going inside the military installation, looking at location data, which can give people information on troop movements,” Carr said. “There’s a range of ways that that sensitive data going back to Beijing with their sophisticated [artificial intelligence] can ultimately be used to harm U.S. national security.”
TikTok has over a billion users worldwide, including 135 million in the United States. The app is increasingly popular with younger Americans. While most users upload short videos, the app is increasingly used by young users as a search engine.
A long history of malicious behavior
TikTok has a long history of tracking its users’ online behavior without their consent, and in 2021 it started automatically gathering biometric data. Further, according to The Ruck, in 2022 “an independent researcher found code allowing TikTok to log keystrokes.”
In September, TikTok tried to hammer out an agreement that would assuage U.S. security concerns. However, Treasury has voiced doubts that this agreement can resolve the security issues.
TikTok claims that the changes made to the app have walled off the data from China, but leaked audio from TikTok meetings has already disproved that. In September 2021, a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety team, said that “everything is seen in China.” In another meeting, a TikTok official added that the “master admin” was in Beijing and “has access to everything.”
More recently, a report found “excessive data harvesting” carried out by TikTok on users’ devices, including downloading the device location at least once an hour. Additionally, according to the report, the app collects serial numbers for both the users’ devices and SIM cards.
The U.S. government has banned the app on government-issued phones.
Yet, with nearly a third of the U.S. population already using the app, any government attempt to remove it completely now would undoubtedly meet with huge pushback, but the national security concerns are real and warranted.
Would you want Russia, China, or Iran to have access to your data?
Feature Image: A Marine uses a mobile application. (Photo by Barb Hamby/Marine Corps Systems Command)
Steve Balestrieri is a proven military analyst. He served as a US Army Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer in the 7th Special Forces Group. In addition to writing for Sandboxx.com, he has written for 19fortyfive.com and SOFREP.com; he has covered the NFL for PatsFans.com for over 11 years. His work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.
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