The U.S. Army this week joined the Navy in banning soldiers from using TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned video app marred by troublesome data handling practices, pegging it as a national security risk.
“The U.S. Army’s decision to ban TikTok is yet another sign of the growing suspicion and mistrust U.S. authorities feel towards the Chinese-developed social media platform,” said Ray Walsh, data privacy advocate at ProPrivacy.com.
“It is considered a cyber threat,” a Military.com report cited Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Robin Ochoa as saying. “We do not allow it on government phones.”
But the report pointed out that until recently the Army used the social media app as a recruitment tool. The shift in policy follows a Defense Department Cyber Awareness Message on December 16 that pegged “TikTok as having potential security risks associated with its use” and cautioning employees to be mindful of downloadable apps, monitoring “phones for unusual and unsolicited texts etc.” Personnel we’re instructed to “delete them immediately and uninstall TikTok to circumvent any exposure of personal information.”
TikTok has been under intense scrutiny with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and other lawmakers in a letter to Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire expressing concern that the app’s China-based patent, ByteDance, could be pressured “to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”
The company has spurned those accusations. But early in 2019, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said Musical.ly, TikTok’s earlier iteration, illegally gathered and used children’s personal data, and levied a $5.7million fine on the app for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
The operators of Musical.ly, which allows users to make and share short, lip-synced videos, “knew many children were using the app but they still failed to seek parental consent before collecting names, email addresses, and other personal information from users under the age of 13,” FTC Chairman Joe Simons said in a release announcing the fine, the largest yet under COPPA. “This record penalty should be a reminder to all online services and websites that target children: We take enforcement of COPPA very seriously, and we will not tolerate companies that flagrantly ignore the law.”
And in a lawsuit filed by a college student in the Northern District of California in early December, TikTok was accused of secretly transferring user data to China without obtaining consent.
Misty Hong claimed the viral video service culled off her personal videos and information, then funneled it to servers in China.
“TikTok is known to have unsettling privacy features that are hard to shore up properly, and some believe the application captures user data and send it back to China,” said Walsh. “For military personnel – who could potentially be placed under surveillance by TikTok on behalf of the Chinese government – the risk of corporate espionage is elevated and the idea that user videos could be harvested, even if they are not posted, is highly concerning.”